Highlights (or, rather lowlights):
The Colorado River’s decline has drained three-quarters of the water from the nation’s largest reservoirs, and falling closer than ever to levels where hydroelectric dams can’t generate power and millions of people lose access to drinking water and irrigation supplies across seven states.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared that the Lower Colorado River Basin has reached what’s called a “Tier 2” shortage, requiring cuts in water use that will diminish what Arizona gets by 21 percent, Nevada by 8 percent and the country of Mexico by 7 percent.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement Tuesday means that water releases from Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, on Lakes Powell and Mead, will be further reduced next year. This is the second consecutive year that authorities have declared such shortages.
Lake Powell is expected to be at 3,522 feet by Jan. 1, 2023 — a level that is just 32 feet above an electricity-generating threshold known as the “minimum power pool.” Lake Mead is expected to be at 1,048 feet, prompting the additional cutbacks in Nevada, Arizona and Mexico.
Wade said that some 690,000 acres are expected to be left fallow in California this year, leaving crops such as tomatoes, melons, rice and alfalfa in shorter supply, and more is expected with future Colorado River cuts. Paul Orme, a lawyer who represents farmers in Pinal County, Ariz., said that of the 250,000 acres of irrigable land in the county, up to 100,000 will have to be left unplanted, a situation that’s “bad in every direction.”
“'Fallowing' is the F-word around here — nobody likes it,” said Robert Schettler, a spokesman with the Imperial Irrigation District in California, a supplier of irrigation water from the Colorado River. “It has an impact on the local economy. And agriculture is our backbone. Productive land is taken out of production. There’s less work for farmworkers, seed salesmen, hay balers and everything that goes with it.”
He said that the past few years have revealed a disturbing trend: that even in years with close to average precipitation, the amount of runoff making it into reservoirs is dramatically down, suggesting a fundamental long-term change in the relationship between the snowpack in the mountains and how much water will make it through the drought-parched West.
“Now the thinking is: To get average inflows into the reservoirs — that would lead to an average operation — you actually have to have significantly higher-than-normal precipitation and snowpack,” he said.
“That’s a game changer,” he said.