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Feds Declare First Water Shortage on Lower Colorado River Amid Prolonged Drought

Lake Mead's bath tub ring is growing larger this year, as the nation's largest human-made reservoir declines to its lowest level on record.
Luke Runyon/KUNC
Lake Mead's bath tub ring is growing larger this year, as the nation's largest human-made reservoir declines to its lowest level on record.

Federal officials declared a first-ever water shortage for the lower Colorado River, triggering mandatory cutbacks for some users. Ongoing drought across the West, increased demand and the wide-reaching effects of climate change have steadily reduced water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs. Usage restrictions will begin in January, and are expected to be felt most sharply by farmers in Arizona.

The declaration from the Bureau of Reclamation comes as a result of its latest 24-month study, a monthly forecast of Colorado River conditions that guides how water will be allocated.

The August edition of the study, released Monday, projects that water levels in Lake Mead will continue to dip beyond already historic lows. The reservoir provides water to millions of people in Arizona, California and Mexico.

The latest models predict Lake Mead will drop to about 1,065 feet at the beginning of next year. That’s below the critical threshold of 1,075 feet, the point at which restrictions are triggered. The latest study also shows levels will fall further still.

“Reclamation does not take these actions lightly or do so easily,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, the bureau’s deputy commissioner. “We do so because it is necessary in protecting the system and implementing the agreements we have in place and as enacted by congress.”

Monday’s announcement does not come as a surprise. Levels in Lake Mead have been dropping sharply for months as drought and warmer temperatures have reduced the amount of snowmelt that feeds the Colorado River from high in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming.

Recent drops are only the latest in a decades-long trend of slumping water levels in the reservoir. Touton said both Lake Mead and Lake Powell were nearly full at the turn of the millennium.

“I remember being on a tour at Hoover Dam and standing at the top of the dam, leaning over and thinking I could touch the water because the level was so high,” she said. “Little did we know then that 2000 would be the start of what is now a 22-year drought. In just five years of that drought, Lakes Mead and Powell lost 22% of their capacity.”

Experts warned of shortage levels well before they occurred, and some users had begun to diversify their water sources in anticipation. Mandatory cutbacks will hit Arizona the hardest, removing about 18% of Arizona’s Colorado River supply and about 8% of the state’s total water use.

Nevada will lose about 7% of its water allocation, but state authorities say they won’t feel that reduction because they were already able to conserve water in anticipation of a shortage.

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This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River basin, produced by KUNC in northern Colorado, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

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