New Water Cuts Coming to Drought-Stricken Southwest

An extraordinary drought in the West is drying up the Colorado River and draining the nation’s largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell. And amid the overuse of the river and the aridification of the region, the federal government is implementing new mandatory water cuts and asking states to devise a plan to save the river basin.

U.S. officials announced Tuesday that two U.S. states, Nevada and Arizona, reliant on water from the Colorado River will face more water cuts as they endure extreme drought.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared that the Lower Colorado River Basin has reached what’s called a “Tier 2” shortage, requiring cuts in water use that will diminish what Arizona gets by 21 percent, Nevada by 8 percent and the country of Mexico by 7 percent.

California will not yet have cuts made to the water they receive from the Colorado River.

The root of the problem is an ongoing, 23-year drought, the worst stretch for the region in more than a millennium.

Lake Mead in June near Boulder City, Nevada
  • Lake Mead is currently less than a quarter full and the seven states overall that depend on its water missed a federal deadline to announce proposals on plans that would cut additional water next year.
  • Already, extraordinary steps have been taken this year to keep water in Lake Powell, the other large Colorado River reservoir, which sits upstream of Lake Mead and straddles the Arizona-Utah border.
Utah’s Lake Powell in April

At a June Senate hearing, Bureau of Reclamation chief Camille Touton laid out a stark warning. In order to stabilize the Colorado River Basin, states and water districts must come up with a plan by August 15 to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water usage by next year. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would fill one acre a foot deep — roughly 326,000 gallons.)

Touton’s proposed cut is a massive amount — the high end of the target is about 25% less water than states currently receive. And the low end of the target represents the vast majority of Arizona’s yearly allotment of Colorado River water.

Touton also made clear in June that if the states cannot come up with a plan, the federal government will act.

Washington Post, CNN, AP