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Colorado River Basin States Brace For Future Water Cuts As Colorado River Reservoirs Run Low

Published: Tuesday, April 27, 2021 - 12:35pm
Updated: Monday, May 3, 2021 - 8:09am
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LAUREN GILGER: As we inch closer to another, I'm sure, blazing hot summer here, Arizona remains in a prolonged drought that will continue to test our region's water supply. And last week, the Bureau of Reclamation released a study that shows just how dry it could get. The two-year study predicts that we will soon hit a tier one shortage level in Colorado River water, which would then trigger reductions in our water supply under the drought contingency plan. It's certainly not good news, but it's also not surprising. And here to tell us more about what it all means is KUNC's Luke Runyon, who covers the Colorado River Basin. Welcome back to The Show, Luke.

LUKE RUNYON: Hi, Lauren.

GILGER: OK, so let's start with this study from the Bureau of Reclamation. What does it say? Why isn't this necessarily a surprise?

RUNYON: This is something the Bureau of Reclamation puts out once a month. And it's a report called the "24-Month Study." And it projects out the amount of water that's held in Colorado River reservoirs, how much hydropower its dams are going to produce over the next two years. And the reason these reports get a lot of attention is because what they forecast has real world implications for users on the river. The latest forecast shows Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir in the Colorado River, declining past a threshold that it hasn't gone below since it was built. There's this elevation in Lake Mead — it's at 1,075 feet above sea level. And when this report says Lake Mead is going to drop below that level at the start of a calendar year, it's a big deal. And that's what it says is going to happen later this year. That level is designated as putting the lower basin of the river into something called an official shortage. And this is something the federal government would declare. And it means that some users on the river under this shortage would face significant cutbacks to the amount of water that they can take from the river. And like you said, it's not a surprise for a couple of reasons. The basin has been flirting with this shortage declaration for about a decade now, and it has just barely been able to skirt past it. The river's watershed is really dry right now, and it's been trending hotter and drier for more than 20 years — reservoirs just can't catch a break. And the Colorado River has a fundamental math problem where there's more demands than water supply. So it really was just a matter of time before this happened.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. So what kinds of reactions are we seeing, like from state and business leaders to this news? Are we prepared for these conditions?

RUNYON: I think the main message you're hearing from leaders is don't panic. And we've heard from officials in Arizona and California about this already. In Arizona, the cutbacks are the steepest of any other state in the basin. So you're hearing from the state and from officials at the Central Arizona Project (CAP) that they've been prepared for this news, that it's not a surprise. Some of that is public relations. You know, we, we know that this shortage declaration is coming, we don't want people to freak out or to scare off businesses that want to relocate to Arizona. I think what makes the news feel particularly jarring to people is that climate change is making it difficult to rely on past experience to know what's going to happen in not the far-off distant future, but the near future. The Colorado River is a great example of this. We have some inkling of how dry things can get in the Colorado River Basin by looking at tree rings samples. But since we've had modern scientific measurements, we've never seen the river basin get this dry and this hot. So we really don't know how well-equipped our infrastructure is to handle something that it wasn't built to handle. We didn't think that we were going to get this hot and dry.

GILGER: Man. OK, so let's, let's bring it all home then. What does this mean then, for all of us who live here?

RUNYON: In the short term, it means less water for users on the Central Arizona Project system. Most of the cutbacks will be felt earliest among farmers. Some of the steepest cuts are on Pinal County farmers. But this next series of cutbacks won't just hit Pinal County; it'll be more widespread. And already you've heard from farmers that they're going to switch to groundwater to make up the deficit. And that's probably a whole other conversation that we could have about how groundwater fits into Arizona's water future. Bigger cities that rely on CAP water like Phoenix and Tucson say that their supplies won't be affected just yet. But I think that this declaration really could kick off a reckoning in Arizona about how the state is positioned to manage its water-short future, and if it is doing enough to live within its means when it comes to water supplies. Some cities in other parts of the basin have taken it upon themselves to do a lot more aggressive conservation, like programs that pay residents to rip out their lawns or big investments in water recycling technology. And you could see more of that in Arizona if municipal leaders get desperate enough.

GILGER: Yeah, OK. So before I let you go, Luke, let's talk for a few minutes about this announcement from the Biden administration about the formation of a working group to address what they're calling the Western Water Crisis. Could that play a role in all of this? Is this connected?

RUNYON: Yeah, and we haven't really heard a lot from the administration about this issue just yet. Which honestly has been kind of surprising to me as a reporter who covers this. We're in one of the worst dry periods on record in much of the Southwest, and the Biden administration hasn't really laid out its priorities in the Colorado River Basin. I think this new push that we just heard about is to get all the federal agencies that deal with drought and natural resources to work better together. But we still don't have a nominee for the Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who will be at the helm of navigating a lot of these issues in the basin. You have Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who's being more visible now — but she has a lot more on her desk than just the Colorado River. So I think some of what we're seeing is a little bit of a leadership vacuum with some of that top Reclamation position still vacant.

GILGER: All right. That is Luke Runyon, who covers the Colorado River Basin for KUNC. Luke, thank you so much for coming on The Show to explain all of this to us as always.

RUNYON: Thank you for having me.

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