‘There is no climate plan for the Colorado River’

BuRec’s first-ever declared water shortage prompts calls for a policy rethink

By: - August 17, 2021 8:09 am
water intake towers

“We will experience unavoidable reductions in farm water supplies and hydropower generation, ecosystem degradation, and urban areas will need to conserve water,” a Dept. of Interior official told a Senate panel. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

As drought and climate change threatens the Colorado River, the federal government officially declared the first-ever water shortage in the Colorado River Basin on Monday, leading to mandatory water cuts for Nevada in 2022. 

Under the cuts, Nevada will lose about 7% of its allocation, or 21,000 acre-feet of water, through at least early next year. 

While the cuts are not expected to affect Nevada water users for now, water officials have warned that if water levels continue to fall there is a high probability that Lake Mead could get close to the point in the next decade where the Hoover Dam could no longer deliver water downstream and power production there could come to a halt.

The declaration, issued by the Bureau of Reclamation, was triggered by receding water levels in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., which are projected to drop to levels low enough to prevent meeting water and energy demands.

Lake Mead reached a historic low in June, dropping below 1,075 feet above sea level, the mark previously set to trigger mandatory cutbacks. By January of next year water in the reservoir is expected to hit 1,066 feet above sea level, according to projections by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The mandatory cuts, referred to as Tier 1 reductions, are part of a drought contingency plan approved in 2019 which lays out how water will be doled out if a shortage occurs.

 Additional tiers could go into effect if the lake level continues to decline, which would lead to larger cuts in 2023 and 2024.

“While these agreements and actions have reduced the risk, we have not eliminated the potential for continued decline of these critically important reservoirs,” said Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Touton in a statement.

Climate change, drought and overuse of the Colorado River system are jeopardizing the reliability of the water, which supplies 40 million people in the West. Hotter temperatures have caused a reduction in snowmelt which supplies the Colorado River with water.

colorado river basin map
(U.S. Geological Survey)

“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo in a statement. “The only way to address these challenges and climate change is to utilize the best available science and to work cooperatively across the landscapes and communities that rely on the Colorado River.”

Farmers in Arizona are likely to bear the brunt of the cuts in water supply, as the state will lose 18% of its share from the river, which translates to about 8% of the state’s total water use, or 512,000 acre-feet. Mexico will also lose 5% of its river share.

Water officials in Southern Nevada said over the past two decades the state has taken significant steps in preparing for cuts in water supply.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) has recently finished construction on a $650 million pumping station at Lake Mead that SNWA says will ensure reliable water delivery for Southern Nevada in the future even as the reservoir falls to lower levels.

Conservation efforts have led to a 23% decline in water use since 2002 despite the addition of nearly 800,000 new residents, the authority said.

However, “water conservation remains our most effective management tool, and now is the time for all of us to redouble our conservation efforts in order to remain ahead of the curve and continue protecting the investments we have all made in our community,” said SNWA General Manager John Entsminger in a statement.

Entsminger said Southern Nevada must continue to reduce outdoor water consumption — which accounts for about 60 percent of the region’s overall water use.

During the last legislative session the authority pushed Nevada lawmakers to take up legislation that would ban decorative grass across the Las Vegas Valley by the end of 2026. The authority estimated the change will save about 12 billion gallons of water annually for the region.

“Southern Nevada has the capability, the obligation, and the need to be the most water-efficient community in the nation,” Entsminger said. “We already safely treat, recycle and return indoor water use back to Lake Mead, so conserving the water we use outdoors will help us achieve that goal and ensure our long-term sustainability.” 

A coalition of conservation advocates, however, said local and federal governments need to end unsustainable water use and work toward solutions. 

“There is no climate plan for the Colorado River,” Zach Frankel, executive director of the conservation group Utah Rivers Council, said during a press conference

Kyle Rorink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, called out a proposal from U.S Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto to approve land transfers to allow developers to build homes and businesses on what had been public land which he said would only contribute to urban sprawl. 

“Those new developments are going to require new pipelines of Colorado River water serving them,” Rorink said. “We have to reshape how we manage the river.”

“Even with this declaration, Nevada’s Congressional delegation continues to promote the
Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act to expand urban sprawl in Clark County,” said the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Mi Familia Vota and the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter in a joint statement.

“It is possible to grow the Las Vegas valley’s population and economic base while still reducing our water consumption and improving the quality of life for current and future residents, but not if we continue the patterns of development that contributed to the problems we’re facing today,” said PLAN’s Jose Silva.

Rep. Dina Titus, who’s district includes the heart of the metro area including the Las Vegas Strip, said it’s critical that infrastructure funds for the state support water conservation projects.

“Today’s announcement is further evidence of the urgent need for climate action. Nevada has been preparing for years for such a scenario, working with neighboring states to bank water resources and invest in conservation programs and policies to ensure an uninterrupted supply of safe, clean water for Southern Nevada’s residents and visitors,” Titus said.

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies.