Yuma farmers worry about future of Colorado River water
Farmers Robert Woodhouse and John Boelts talk about the history and future of using Colorado River water in Yuma and southern Arizona.
Mark Henle, The Republic
LAS VEGAS — The seven states that share the Colorado River are racing to craft a new water conservation plan this winter, before federal officials who operate the dams impose one on them.
Whatever they face, whether by consensus or by order of U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the people responsible for supplying 40 million Western residents with water will have to cut more this year than they’ve saved over 20 drought years of negotiations, squabbles and collaborations.
“Do the math and face reality,” Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Enstminger told his colleagues Thursday at an annual gathering of the Colorado River Water Users Association.
To the surprise of none of the hundreds who attended, the math that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation presented at the conference was daunting. It will require rapid federal, state, tribal and irrigator actions to stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell and keep the river flowing past the dams in coming years.
The two giant reservoirs held 47.6 million acre-feet of water in 1998, before drought and a warming climate sapped the river’s flows, the agency reported. Now they hold just 13. 1 million acre-feet, which is not much more than the river’s average natural flow per year during the drought. Each acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons and could supply about three households for a year, though roughly 80% of the water is used on farms.
A worst-case scenario, with weather similar to what the region experienced in 2002, could end hydroelectric power production at Glen Canyon Dam and threaten it at Hoover Dam by 2024, officials said. From there, the ability to flow meaningful amounts of water through bypass tubes would be at risk.
Law of the river or law of physics?
The Bureau of Reclamation last summer asked the states to find between 2 million and 4 million acre-feet in water savings to keep the reservoirs from crashing further. That remains the rough goal as states struggle to find a consensus.
A key problem is the river’s legal allocation system, stemming from a 100-year-old interstate compact that rewarded early water users with priority and parceled out state-by-state shares that climate change has since rendered impossible to fulfill. The system theoretically grants 15 million acre-feet to the seven states and 1.5 million more to Mexico, but the river only produces 12 million or so each year now.
The allocations don’t account for evaporation and losses in canal transport, which add up to some 1.5 million acre-feet. Arizona officials have pushed to finally reckon with those losses and cut each state’s take according to its share. But that would force California, the state with the biggest share of the river and priority over central Arizona’s share, to accept cuts that weren’t envisioned in previous agreements and settlements.
When Congress approved the Central Arizona Project to pump Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson decades ago, California’s delegation insisted that it include a provision for cutting off that supply before California’s. At the time, the coming effects of climate change were unknown and unaccounted for.
Now, Arizona Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said, it’s futile to cling to the so-called Law of the River if its prescribed priorities might plunge Lake Mead low enough to keep water flowing out of it to Arizona, California and Mexico. What negotiators must respect now, he said, is rather the “law of physics.”
Entsminger, of Nevada, agreed. But a California representative was not ready to commit to subtracting evaporation from his state’s share. The state’s irrigators enjoy senior rights, so they need compensation to forgo their use, said Peter Nelson, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California. Some of them, in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, recently agreed to compensation for leaving 400,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead over the next few years, he noted.
Buschatzke later told The Arizona Republic he interpreted that response as shorthand for “Arizona’s going to take it all” by delivering less through the CAP canal.
Nonetheless, Buschatzke said, he expects the states to come up with a consensus plan in the next month, when Reclamation officials expect one.
“I think we can reach some deal,” he said. Whether it’s enough, or will still require federally imposed new restrictions, is unclear, he said.
Can cities achieve a ‘negative footprint’ with water?
Representatives from the Rocky Mountain states, whose snowpack feeds the river, said it’s hard for them to calculate how much water they could commit to saving when so much for them depends on year-to-year weather. They are upstream of the big reservoirs, and some years many of their farmers are cut off simply because their tributary streams run dry.
Still, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Becky Mitchell said she is telling fellow Coloradans to brace for reductions. “You will not like all of my decisions,” she said, “because this is going to be painful.”
She added that no one will be spared. “We need to reduce demands,” she said. “Every state. Every sector.”
Quickly propping up the reservoirs will require most from farms, though, as that’s where most of the water goes. Arizona cities are well positioned to continue providing tap water to all customers regardless of what happens, Buscatzke said. But he said cities should cut back to gain buy-in from the farmers who hold higher-priority legal rights.
Entsminger, whose water district in Las Vegas has slashed so much lawn watering it cut its water deliveries as its population grew, said all of the Southwest’s cities need to achieve a “negative footprint” in water consumption.
The Bureau of Reclamation announced its intention to complete a supplemental environmental study for altering the terms of dam-operating guidelines that it and the states approved in 2007. Those guidelines set triggers for shortages that already have caused cutbacks in Arizona and Nevada this year, and will force more cuts starting in January. But those cuts have proved insufficient to protect the dams and the river, and the agency is working on emergency measures to last through 2026 when the guidelines expire and will need replacing.
Federal officials often announce or sign significant water initiatives and agreements at the Las Vegas conference, including a deal last year that committed compensation for water users agreeing to leave 500,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead. Expectations for the announcement of federal emergency restrictions at this year’s event peaked in the fall but then faded when Reclamation announced it would take public comment on the matter until next week.
Instead of announcing any new policy, federal officials reiterated their commitment to rescuing the dams and the water supply.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., spoke at the conference on Friday. He touted the Inflation Reduction Act’s $4 billion investment in drought mitigation and later told reporters he fully expects states to reach a water conservation deal, one that he believes should assign evaporative losses to them all. If they don’t, he said, he expects Reclamation will impose its will.
“We are not going to let the Colorado River crash and Lake Powell and Lake Mead get to minimum power pool,” he said, “or worse than that, dead pool.”
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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