Time’s up for the Colorado River, and a scary new phase begins

Time has run out for drought-stricken states along the Colorado River in the US southwest, as talks aimed at coming to terms on a water-sharing plan have broken down.

“Negotiations among the Colorado River’s Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada have stalled,” according to Luke Runyon, a journalist for a Colorado public radio station focused on the Colorado River. According to Runyon, that makes “a seven-state commitment to conserve 2-4 million acre-feet unlikely ahead of a federal deadline.”

That much water — 2-4 million acre-feet — is about one-third of the river’s historic flow, roughly equivalent to all the water Arizona’s farmer use each year to grow alfalfa, a specialized type of hay, or about as much as Las Vegas uses in five years.

As Currently previously reported, the federal Bureau of Reclamation issued an ultimatum at a meeting with Colorado Basin state officials back in June: either figure out how to conserve at least 2 million acre feet of water in the next 60 days or we’ll do it for you. That 60 days ends Tuesday.

The negotiations have added urgency as drought worsens past all historical markers — and on the current course, the alternative is even worse: no one gets water.

California is on pace for its driest year in recorded history as a decades-long megadrought continues to escalate. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River and a safety valve for 37 million people across the Southwest, is at its lowest levels since its creation after the Hoover Dam was constructed in 1936. A tree-ring analysis published earlier this year showed that the current drought is the worst in at least 1200 years.

Global warming has greatly worsened drought conditions in the Southwest, with hotter temperatures speeding up evaporation rates and making the rain that does fall disappear quicker. Combined with a rapid increase in water usage across the region over the past 100 years, the Western water supply has reached a breaking point.

Perilous drops in water levels are happening simultaneously across the West, from the Great Salt Lake in Utah to reservoirs in Northern California. In a worst-case scenario, if Lake Mead continues to drop at its current rate, it could hit so-called “dead pool” levels in just a few years — the point at which Hoover Dam’s hydropower turbines will stop generating electricity for millions of people, and its function as a store of water would be compromised.

Of course, what’s happening in the US Southwest isn’t happening in isolation. New data show that June and July 2022 were the hottest June and July on land in recorded world history. Heat, fires, drought and floods have raged this summer from England to Kenya to Korea to Paraguay.

The next steps in triaging the Southwest drought are unclear, but in the absence of a last-minute deal between the states, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which has authority over water allocation on the Colorado, is likely to impose a rationing plan later this year. In recent days, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has also announced a comprehensive drought plan.

Arizona and California farmers will likely face the most draconian of the looming cuts, with agriculture currently using about 80 percent of water across the Colorado basin. The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden is expected to sign this week, allocates $4 billion for drought response, and could be used to pay farmers not to use their water allocations. Over the longer-haul, farmers might need to shift water-intensive crops like tomatoes, alfalfa, and almonds might to more drought-tolerant plants like agave.


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