Government Declares Unprecedented Colorado River Water Shortage

Image: Adrille (edit by Aqwis) via Wikimedia Commons

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer


For the first time in history, the federal government has declared a water shortage on the Colorado River after drought pushed the Lake Mead reservoir to all-time lows. The declaration triggers mandatory water consumption cuts for several Southwestern states. The reservoir and the Colorado river supply drinking water to over 40 million people. As drought becomes a permanent fixture across the Southwest, experts and officials are preparing not for temporary cuts but a long haul of water use regulation.

Why This Matters: More than 95% of the U.S. West is now in a drought, the most significant area ever recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Some states are already conflicting over the management of rivers and reservoirs. Now, the drinking water of over 40 million people is at risk as severe heatwaves, and power grid failures increase demand for water resources. Black and Indigenous communities, which disproportionately lack reliable access to water, stand to be the most impacted by water shortages. Still, agriculture will likely be the first to experience massive cuts to water use. Officials say that to protect the lives of millions, the government must act fast to adapt to shifting water systems and slash carbon emissions before Lake Mead, and other reservoirs run dry.

The Reservoir Half Empty

The Bureau of Reclamation within the Interior Department declared the shortage as it released a 24-month outlook for the Colorado River. The prognosis: by the end of 2021, Lake Mead will be at only 34% capacity, lower than it’s been since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. In response, the government will institute Tier 1 cuts to lower basin states, including California, Nevada, and Arizona, but may institute cuts to the upper basin as the situation continues. These cuts are a part of a contingency plan developed and approved by California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming, along with input from Indigenous communities and Mexican officials.  

Under the cuts, Arizona’s water supply from the Colorado river will decrease by nearly 20%, enough to provide a year’s water supply to over one million households. Although these cuts will primarily apply to agriculture, the cuts come as cities like Phoenix are experiencing massive population growth and more demand for water. Nevada will adhere to a 7% cut in water from the Colorado River in 2022, but the cuts are not expected to impact the state’s overall supply significantly. Still, experts say that further cuts are nearly guaranteed. “As this inexorable-seeming decline in the supply continues, the shortages that we’re beginning to see implemented are only going to increase,” said Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River program at the National Audubon Society. “Once we’re on that train, it’s not clear where it stops.”

Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund is calling on Congress to pass President Biden’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes billions of dollars of funding that could be critical to preserving the West’s water resources. The funding would help restore and protect natural infrastructure, including forests, watersheds, and underground aquifers. “Our water infrastructure is not just man-made reservoirs and treatment plants,” said Moran. “It’s the natural system, too.”

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