Western States Are Fighting Over How to Conserve Shrinking Water Supply

The Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people, is drying up

People walk on a makeshift boardwalk across dry land behind a disintegrating, muddy boat
Dropping water levels in Lake Mead, a reservoir of the Colorado River, revealed this formerly submerged boat. Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Residents of the Colorado River basin are in the throes of a historic, 23-year drought exacerbated by climate change. With warmer and drier conditions, the river, which supplies water to seven Western states and Mexico, is drying up.

This week, the federal government announced unprecedented cuts to two states and Mexico, but officials say more must be done to manage the dwindling water supply. In the meantime, negotiations among the states for self-imposed cuts have stalled.

“I feel like we haven’t reached the point where every water user on the river accepts that everybody has to be a part of this solution,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, tells the New York Times’ Henry Fountain.

Starting in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River extends 1,450 miles into Mexico and the Gulf of California. Its two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have been dramatically reduced by rising temperatures and decreased precipitation. Extreme heat evaporates the river and the mountain snowpack that feeds it, and dry land absorbs runoff before it reaches the reservoirs, writes the Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow and Karin Brulliard.

The use of the river’s water is based on agreements largely negotiated in the early 20th century that did not include the 30 tribal nations living in the river’s basin, Grid’s Dave Levitan wrote in July.

These agreements were also made during a particularly wet period in the river’s history, per Grid. At the time, authorities assumed the Colorado could provide 20 million acre-feet of water each year, but in the last two decades, the real flow has averaged little over half of that, providing just 12.5 million acre-feet per year, according to Reuters’ Daniel Trotta and Caitlin Ochs.

Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University, tells the Post that states likely overused close to 1.8 million acre-feet of water per year in 2021 and 2022.

In June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation set an August 15 deadline for Colorado River states and stakeholders to come up with a plan to cut their water usage by about 15 to 25 percent, according to CNN’s Ella Nilsen. That deadline passed earlier this week without a resolution, and federal officials haven’t set a new one, per CNN. Nor have they said when the federal government will step in and impose cuts if the states can’t reach a deal.

The Colorado River basin states “have called the bureau’s bluff time and again,” Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, told Sam Metz, Suman Naishadham and Kathleen Ronayne of the Associated Press (AP) on Tuesday. “Nothing has changed with today’s news—except for the fact that the Colorado River system keeps crashing.”

Three narrow prongs of a lake, seen from a satellite, stand out against a dry landscape
Lake Mead, a reservoir of the Colorado River, on July 3 Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory

The river is not only a source of water for 40 million people in the United States and Mexico—it also supports billions of dollars of agricultural production, according to the Times.

Lake Mead is now less than a quarter full and is approaching the point where the flow would not be strong enough to produce hydroelectric power at the Hoover Dam, per the AP.

The federal government did announce on Tuesday that Arizona, Nevada and the country of Mexico will have to use less water for the second year in a row, cuts that had been previously negotiated, per Reuters. These three areas will have access to 21 percent, 8 percent and 7 percent less water, respectively, than their historical allocations, per the Times.

But these cuts are only a fraction of what the Bureau of Reclamation says is necessary: The measure only amounts to a roughly 700,000-acre-foot reduction in water use, compared to the 2 to 4 million acre-feet in cuts that officials had called for, per CNN.

Previous cuts in Arizona have strongly affected farmers, and further cuts are anticipated to impact agriculture the most, which uses three-quarters of the water supply, according to the Times. Some farmers have already had to leave fields fallow, grow less water-intensive crops or stop farming entirely, per the Times. This could in turn affect nationwide food supplies, according to the Post.

Further cuts will be necessary to keep the river flowing, and lawmakers are urging the Bureau of Reclamation to act, per CNN.

“The water’s just not there,” Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director at the National Audubon Society, tells the Times. “That’s the stone-cold reality, and no amount of politicking can change that.”