The Colorado River provides water to tens of millions of people, but the restrictions will cut supplies to many western states.
In the West, drying lake beds and shrinking rivers are reaching breaking point. Now the Department of the Interior is cutting water supplies to several western states as the Colorado River narrows and the vital Lakes Powell and Mead it feeds sink ever lower.
“I wish I had a crystal ball to know what’s going to happen in the Colorado River Basin,” said Simone Kjolsrud, a water resources consultant in Chandler, Arizona. “When you live in the desert, you have to have this conservation ethic of embracing this desert lifestyle.”
In Arizona, cities are now planning an upcoming 21% reduction in the state’s initial water allocation.
Part of a set of cuts was announced on Tuesday. This also includes slashes to provide for Nevada and parts of Mexico.
“We’ve known for decades that there’s a real possibility that our water supplies could be cut off, and so for the most part cities have been planning very proactively,” said Kathryn Sorensen, a researcher at the ASU Kyl Center for Water Policy.
Cities near Phoenix are now facing some of the deepest reductions in the West, amid some of the most disastrous water conservation efforts ever.
The Department of the Interior is now looking to save some 2-4 million acres of water over the next four years under good conservation conditions. One foot of an acre can provide three houses for a year.
“We have invested in infrastructure,” Kjolsrud said. “We have stored groundwater that we can access during times of surface water scarcity. We don’t expect this in the next few years.”
Yet the cuts are not good news for the millions of people who depend on the Colorado River and the $15 billion agricultural industry.
“If we had good rains here, it would go ahead and green up,” said Nancy Caywood, a farmer from Arizona.
Lately, Caywood hasn’t been doing much farming, even though it’s his job.
Instead, she tours her land to make up for the money she loses – with no crops to sell.
“I drive around and stare at empty canals,” Caywood said. “I literally burst into tears a couple of times because I think it’s such a desperate situation.”
On a neighboring farm, his son rents land to supplement his income.
“I don’t know if there’s going to be enough water to go on, if he’s going to run out, with his allowance,” Caywood said.
Arizona is the hardest hit of the southwestern states that rely on the Colorado River drain. Seven states – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – were asked to come up with a plan to cut their overall water use by 15% next year.
But the ensuing struggle, with upper basin states struggling to hold on to their allocations amid a growing population and lower basin states struggling to stave off the deepest cuts, has left state governments in a bind, prompting the federal government to make the cuts for them.
“We will lose 10% of our water supply by 2040,” said California Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.
California has no cuts under the plan, but Governor Newsom is mindful that the state still faces dwindling water supplies. He has just unveiled a plan to invest billions in water recycling, storage and desalination.
“What we’re focused on is creating more supply…creating more water,” Governor Newsom said.
The cuts announced Tuesday are just a taste of what could be to come, as the Department of the Interior seeks to save significantly more water from the Colorado River.