SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — For the second year in a row, Arizona and Nevada will reduce the amount of water they can draw from the Colorado River as the West braces for more drought, federal officials announced Tuesday.
While the cuts won’t result in any immediate new restrictions — such as banning lawn watering or car washing — they signal that unpopular decisions about how to reduce consumption are on the horizon, including prioritizing growing cities or agricultural areas. Mexico will also face cuts.
But those cuts represent only a fraction of the potential pain for the 40 million Americans in the seven states that depend on the river. States have failed to meet a federal deadline to figure out how to cut water use by at least 15%, which could see deep cuts the government says are needed to prevent reservoirs from falling too low to pump.
“States are not collectively identifying and taking sufficiently specific measures to stabilize the system,” said Recovery Commissioner Camille Duton.
The missed deadline and recent cuts have put officials responsible for providing water to cities and farms under renewed pressure to plan for a hotter, drier future and a growing population.
A reduction of 15% to 30% is necessary to ensure uninterrupted water supply and hydropower generation, Duton said. On Tuesday, he was noncommittal about whether he plans to unilaterally impose those cuts if states can’t reach an agreement.
He has repeatedly declined to say how much time the states have to reach the deal he sought in June.
This inaction has raised concerns across the region.
Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said of the Colorado River basin states. “Nothing has changed in today’s news — except that the Colorado River system continues to fail.”
Stephen Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community in central Arizona, said the tribe was “shocked and disappointed” by the lack of progress. The tribe, which owns roughly one-fourth of Arizona’s Colorado River supply, plans not to store unused water in Lake Mead, as it has in recent years, but instead to store it underground.
Over the years, cities and farms have diverted more water than flows from the river, depleting its reservoirs and raising questions about how water will be allocated as water becomes scarcer.
After more than two decades of drought, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico were hit by mandatory cuts for the first time last year. Some of the farmers in the area have been paid to leave their fields fallow. Residents of growing cities are subjected to conservation measures such as limits on lawns.
But those efforts have so far been insufficient. Water levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made lake, have dropped so low that it is now less than a quarter full and dangerously low to the point where it doesn’t flow enough water to generate hydroelectric power at Hoover Dam. Nevada-Arizona border.
Officials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been reluctant to propose more stringent water-sharing measures or limits on development.
The trade-offs play out more prominently in California, one of the nation’s fastest-growing states, and Arizona, which has lower priority water rights than water users in the West.
Under Tuesday’s reduction, Arizona would lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water — 21% less than its total share but 3% less than it would gain this year.
An acre-foot equals one acre of land covered by 12 inches of water. An average household uses one and a half to one acre feet of water per year.
After last year’s burden on the agricultural industry, state officials said this year’s cuts would extend to tribes and growing cities that rely on Colorado, including Scottsdale.
Rather than rationing water, mandating conservation or limiting growth, cities rely on other sources. Phoenix, for example, relies heavily on the state’s Salt and Verde rivers, while drawing less of its supply to recharge its groundwater aquifers.
Arizona officials blasted neighboring states.
Arizona and Nevada came up with plans for cuts that would be proportional to water use, but both California and the Bureau of Reclamation rejected that deal, state officials said.
“We need California to participate; “We can’t do this in Arizona and Nevada alone,” said Tom Puschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
The effect of the cuts on farmers is unclear, but many fear more cuts could further fuel tensions between cities and agriculture, which uses more than 70% of water.
Paco Ollerton, a Phoenix-area cotton farmer, worries the deep cuts could affect his water supply next year. Arizona farmers had already lost much of their Colorado River water during previous cuts, but they were compensated with water through contracts with cities like Phoenix and Tucson.
This year, Ollerton grew only half as much as he did before. The cuts announced Tuesday could put more pressure on those cities and raise questions about whether they will share with farmers next year.
“It changes my thinking about how long I’m going to keep farming,” Ollerton said.
Nevada will also lose water — about 8% of its supply — but most residents won’t feel the effects because the state recycles most of its water indoors and doesn’t use its full allocation. Last year, the state lost 7%.
Scorching temperatures and less snowmelt in the spring have reduced the amount of water flowing from the Rocky Mountains, where the river snakes 1,450 miles (2,334 kilometers) before it snakes into the Southwest and the Gulf of California.
Amid a changing climate, extraordinary measures are already being taken To hold water in Lake Powell, the other major Colorado River reservoir along the Arizona-Utah border.
After the lake receded enough to threaten hydroelectric generation, federal officials said they were holding back some water to ensure the dam could still produce power. That water would normally go to Lake Mead.
Mexico loses 7% of the water it receives each year from the River. Last year, it lost about 5%. Water is a lifeline to northern desert cities, including Tijuana, and to a large agricultural industry in the Mexicali Valley, just south of the border from California’s Imperial Valley.
Historically, Mexico has been on the sidelines in discussions about how to share the river, but in recent years, experts say the countries’ efforts to keep more water in the system have become important.
“People are realizing that this is a very important relationship to maintain,” said Jennifer Pitt, who directs the Colorado River Program at the Audubon Society.
Naishadam reported from Washington. Ronayne reported from Sacramento, California.
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