Western drought spurs new water cuts

As the Colorado River continues to lose water, the U.S. Department of the Interior is implementing water cuts and asking states to create water reduction plans.
BY MCKENNA CORSON
The Department of the Interior is implementing Western water cuts and water loss plans as the Colorado River continues to lose water.

As the worsening drought crisis continues to dry up the Colorado River and the nation’s largest reservoirs, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., is implementing new mandatory water cuts and asking states to create plans to halt additional water loss, according to a press release.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s August 2022 24-Month Study, Lake Mead’s water level will drop below 1,050 feet above sea level by January, qualifying it to be a Level 2 shortage starting in 2023. This means that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will be required to reduce water use from the Colorado River for a second year starting in the beginning of 2023. There is no required water savings contribution for California in 2023 under this operating condition.

Lake Powell will operate in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier in water year 2023 (Oct. 1, 2022, through Sept. 30, 2023). The study projects Lake Powell’s Jan. 1, 2023, water surface elevation to be about 3,522 feet, or 178 feet below full pool and 32 feet above minimum power pool.

Prolonged drought and low runoff conditions accelerated by climate change have led to historically low water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead. Over the last two decades, department leaders have engaged with Colorado River Basin partners on various drought response operations. However, given that water levels continue to decline, additional action is needed to protect the system.

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes a $8.3 billion investment to address water and drought challenges and invest in the nation’s western water and power infrastructure. Additionally, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes $4 billion in funding for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought.

In both basins, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will

  • take administrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releases below 7 million acre-feet per year, if needed, to protect critical infrastructure.
  • take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.
  • accelerate ongoing maintenance actions and studies to determine and enhance projected reliability of the use of the river outlet works at Glen Canyon Dam for extended periods.
  • prioritize and prepare for additional administrative initiatives that would ensure maximum efficient and beneficial use of urban and agricultural water, and address evaporation and other system losses in the Lower Basin.
  • support technical studies to ascertain if physical modifications can be made to Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam to allow water to be pumped or released from elevations below currently identified dead pool elevations.
  • continue to work with the basin states, basin tribes, stakeholders and partners to be prepared to implement additional substantial releases from Upper Basin Reservoirs to help enhance reservoir elevations at Lake Powell under the Drought Contingency Plan’s Drought Response Operations Agreement.
  • invest in system conservation and voluntary agreements.
  • consider other operational actions to establish flexibility in both basin operations at Reclamation facilities.

“The interior department’s actions this week demonstrate the significant challenges facing water users in the region, and in other areas of the country, as drought impacts large swaths of the country,” says Nathan Bowen, advocacy director at the Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia. “The IA continues to monitor developments in the region and will work to ensure the interests of the industry are advanced.”

McKenna Corson is the digital content editor for Irrigation Today and can be reached at mckennacorson@irrigation.org.

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