By Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — For the second year in a row, Arizona and Nevada will face cuts in the amount of water they can draw from the Colorado River as the West endures more drought, federal officials announced Tuesday.
Though the cuts will not result in any immediate new restrictions — like banning lawn watering or car washing — they signal that unpopular decisions about how to reduce consumption are on the horizon, including whether to prioritize growing cities or agricultural areas. Mexico will also face cuts.
But those reductions represent just a fraction of the potential pain to come for the 40 million Americans in seven states that rely on the river. Because the states failed to meet a federal deadline to figure out how to cut their water use by at least 15%, they could see even deeper cuts that the government has said are needed to prevent reservoirs from falling so low they cannot be pumped.
“The states collectively have not identified and adopted specific actions of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said.
Together, the missed deadline and the latest cuts put officials responsible for providing water to cities and farms under renewed pressure to plan for a hotter, drier future and a growing population.
Touton has said a 15% to 30% reduction is necessary to ensure that water deliveries and hydroelectric power production are not disrupted. She was noncommittal on Tuesday about whether she planned to impose those cuts unilaterally if the states cannot reach agreement.
She repeatedly declined to say how much time the states have to reach the deal she requested in June.
The inaction has stirred concerns throughout the region about the bureau’s willingness to act as states stubbornly cling to their water rights while acknowledging that a crisis looms.
“They have called the bureau’s bluff time and again,” Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said of the Colorado River basin states. “Nothing has changed with today’s news — except for the fact that the Colorado River system keeps crashing.”
For years, cities and farms have diverted more water from the river than flows through it, depleting its reservoirs and raising questions about how it will be divided as water becomes more scarce.
After more than two decades of drought, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico were hit with mandatory cuts for the first time last year. Some of the region’s farmers have been paid to leave their fields fallow. Residents of growing cities have been subjected to conservation measures such as limits on grass lawns.
But those efforts thus far haven’t been enough. The water level at Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made reservoir, has plummeted so low that it’s currently less than a quarter full and inching dangerously close to a point where not enough water would flow to produce hydroelectric power at the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border.
Officials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been reluctant to propose more draconian water-rationing measures or limits on development.
The trade-offs are emerging most prominently in Arizona, which is among the nation’s fastest-growing states and has lower-priority water rights than water users to the west, in California.
Under Tuesday’s reductions, Arizona will lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water — 21% less than its total share but only 3% less than what it’s receiving this year.
An acre-foot is equivalent to an acre of land covered by 12 inches of water. An average household uses one-half to one acre-foot of water a year.
After putting last year’s burden on the agricultural industry, state officials said this year’s cuts would extend to tribes and growing cities that rely on the Colorado, including Scottsdale.