‘On the brink of disaster’: 2023 is a critical year for the Colorado River as reservoirs flow to a ‘dead pond’
Deep uncertainty hangs over the Colorado River and the 40 million people who depend on it for their water supply as the basin enters a critical year that could determine its future stability.
Plagued by decades of overuse and man-made climate change, the river’s demand for water has far exceeded its supply. By 2023, federal and state officials must find a way to conserve up to 4 million acre-feet of water in Lakes Mead and Powell, or 30% of what the Colorado River states have historically used.
Failure to do so means either of these lakes, the nation’s largest man-made reservoirs, could reach ‘dead pool’ within the next two years, where the water level is too low to cross. dams and downstream for communities and farmers who need it.
The cuts needed are on an unprecedented scale, and officials will fight an uphill battle against a deep, years-long drought to make them. State officials attempted drastic measures to reduce their use this year, but the river’s continued decline was an alarming reality check.
Western state officials wrote a letter in May agreeing to leave 1 million acre-feet of water in Lake Powell. Then they observed that the same amount of water disappeared due to system losses and evaporation.
« Everything we tried to do through the May 3 letter has been undone by mother nature, » Arizona’s top water official Tom Buschatzke told CNN. “We have to understand that this could happen to us again. It’s been happening to us almost every year for the past few years.
Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton recently gave states a January 31 deadline to find a way to voluntarily reduce their use. If they can’t do it themselves, top federal water officials have said they will step in and make mandatory cuts to save the system.
Experts told CNN that even with a good winter and spring runoff season, water managers still have to plan for the worst case.
“You can’t live without water in the reservoirs hoping for good years; you have to fill the system,” Eric Kuhn, former director of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, told CNN. « People are realizing that you can’t live on the edge of disaster. »
Anxiety is growing in the West as reservoir levels drop. Negotiations between states over voluntary water cuts have been tense and closely watched, particularly between the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.
Those talks have stalled amid disagreement over how much water each state should sacrifice and how much money farmers, tribal nations and cities should be paid to reduce their water use.
State negotiators themselves are waiting for the federal government to decide how it will distribute $4 billion in drought relief funds, which the Biden administration introduced from the Watershed Reduction Act. inflation to basically pay people not to use water.
« I wouldn’t say he put anything on hold, » Buschatzke told CNN.
But, he says, « it makes it a little more difficult because of the uncertainty and not knowing » what the difference will be between the money the federal government is offering and the voluntary cuts the districts are making. ready to do.
Other important agreements have been concluded. In November, the Biden administration pledged to spend millions of federal dollars to help restore California’s endangered Salton Sea – a key demand of the powerful Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California. With this funding, other states like Arizona are hoping Imperial and other California water users will agree to put more reductions on the table.
It is also possible that the federal government will intervene if voluntary cuts do not come close to what is needed. But that plan would almost certainly be met with a legal challenge.
Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, told CNN that federal officials are working carefully to prepare for the possibility that they will be sued for mandatory cuts, « so they can demonstrate that this is not a arbitrary action ».
At a December conference of Colorado River water users, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department Tanya Trujillo addressed that likelihood, according to Porter.
« She said, ‘We know we’ll be sued,' » Porter said.
While west coast states have seen a bonanza in precipitation in recent weeks — California’s snowpack is about 150% of average so far this winter — the weather over the Colorado River Basin in the Intermountain West was less humid. Snowpack in parts of the upper basin in Utah and Colorado is slightly above average, but the mountains in the lower basin saw below average snowfall.
Overall, the National Weather Service’s River Forecast Center outlook for the Colorado River Basin suggests spring snowmelt will be near average.
But what the river basin needs are weeks of above-average snowfall, which melts in the spring and flows downstream to replenish reservoirs. And at the end of the day, the Colorado River can’t be saved by the occasional wet winter amid an increasing, long-term drought.
“This one good year is not enough to alleviate stress on the Colorado River,” said Paul Miller, hydrologist at the River Forecast Office. « It will take several of these consecutive above-average years to fill many of the major reservoirs, especially Lake Powell. »
And human-caused climate change will « almost certainly » make dry years worse, said Isla Simpson, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Since the 1980s, the Southwest region has experienced a steady decline in rainfall. Simpson, who co-leads a federal drought task force, said a decades-long lack of rain and an increase in global warming emissions have worsened conditions.
Dry air evaporates water from the ground during long periods of heat. This is another reason why water shortages plague the Colorado River; not only is there enough rain to fill the reservoirs, but the air also sucks the water out of what’s left.
« We have to be very concerned about the future of the Colorado River, » Simpson said.
There’s also a good chance that the lack of rain and light snowpack won’t go away anytime soon, she said. La Niña is expected to persist through winter, which typically causes the jet stream – the upper winds that carry storms around the globe – to shift northward. This means less rainfall for an area that desperately needs it.
All of this means that even though there is a good snowpack this winter, the Colorado River’s existential problems are far from over.
« A good year doesn’t solve us – even a few good years don’t solve us, » Buschatzke said. « We have to rebuild this bank account. »