A turning point for the Colorado River

New water restrictions announced this week to the Colorado River will change what life in the West means for millions of people for decades to come.

Water levels at Lake Mead dropped to 1045 feet above sea level this week, just 150 feet above the point at which water would no longer flow through Hoover Dam. If that were to happen, 25 million people downstream (in Arizona, California, and northern Mexico) would lose access to water from the Colorado River.

According to reporting from the LA Times, the federal Bureau of Reclamation issued an ultimatum at a meeting with Colorado Basin state officials this week: 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.

To put things in perspective, the feds are asking states to conserve a huge amount of water: 2 million acre feet is roughly equal to all the annual water demand of the state of Arizona, the annual water needs for California’s entire almond crop, or 10 years worth of the city of Las Vegas’s water use.

Decades of global warming, rapid expansion of industrial agriculture, and urbanization have conspired to drain the West’s reservoirs nearly dry. Hotter days enhance desert evaporation rates, so what little water remains on fields, golf courses, and swimming pools is lost ever faster to the skies.

These radical cuts have now become essential to maintain Lake Mead and Lake Powell at a high enough level to continue operating hydropower electricity production, and to keep the bare minimum water reserves on hand in case the drought continues to worsen. The cuts are twice as big as all the decades of water planning out west have prepared for to date. They’re likely to deliver a death blow to Western agriculture as we know it — and serve as a watershed example for a new era of forced climate adaptation.

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