Arizona farmers at risk as U.S. declares first-ever water shortage on Colorado River
As the Colorado River continues to suffer from drought, the U.S. federal government declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, one of the river's main reservoirs.
The declaration triggers cuts in water supply that will mostly affect Arizona farmers, according to the New York Times.
Beginning next year, Arizona farmers will be cut off from much of the water they rely on, with smaller reductions mandated for Nevada and Mexico.
The shortage declaration will reduce Arizona’s supply of Colorado River water by about 20 percent, or 512,000 acre-feet.
The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the Interior Department, declared the shortage as it issued its latest outlook for the river for the next 24 months. That forecast showed that by the end of this year Lake Mead would reach a level of 1,066 feet above sea level or 34 percent of capacity.
“Today’s announcement highlights the challenges we face in the Colorado River basin and elsewhere in the West,” said Tanya Trujillo, assistant interior secretary for water and science.
Water levels at Lake Mead and the other large Colorado reservoir, Lake Powell, in Utah, have been falling for years, leaving a telltale white “bathtub ring” of mineral deposits along the shoreline as demand has outpaced supply.
The mandatory cuts, referred to as Tier 1 reductions, are part of a contingency plan approved in 2019 after lengthy negotiations among the seven states that use Colorado River water: California, Nevada and Arizona in the lower basin, and New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming in the upper basin. American Indian tribes and Mexican officials have also been involved in the planning.
The shortage announced on Monday affects only the lower basin states, but the Bureau of Reclamation may declare a similar shortage for the upper basin, perhaps as early as next year.
As demand outpaces supply, water levels at Lake Mead and the other large Colorado reservoir, Lake Powell, in Utah, have been falling for years.
The mandatory cuts, referred to as Tier 1 reductions, are part of a contingency plan approved in 2019 after negotiations among the states that use Colorado River water.
The shortage announced Monday affects only the lower basin states, but the Bureau of Reclamation may declare a similar shortage for the upper basin.
In anticipation of the cuts, some farmers have fallowed fields or switched to less water-intensive crops while others will pump more groundwater to make up for the cuts.
The question for Lake Mead and Colorado is whether the Tier 1 cuts will be enough to halt the decline in supply as climate change continues to affect the river’s flow.
Larger cuts affecting those who rely on the river for at least part of their water supply are likely to come in the future.
Lake Mead now contains about 12 million acre-feet of water, far below its capacity of nearly 30 million acre-feet.
Even in the occasional recent year with good snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, the amount of water running off into the river has declined, as the dry soils soak up much of the melting snow.
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