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Feds impose Colorado River cuts on Arizona and Nevada, Utah won’t see cuts yet

The low water levels of Lake Powell are seen at Lone Rock Beach, March 21, 2022.
Lexi Peery
The low water levels of Lake Powell are seen at Lone Rock Beach, March 21, 2022.

Two Colorado River Basin states and Mexico will make planned, yet historic cuts to water usage this coming year. Upper Basin states like Utah seem to be off the hook — for now.

In June, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave the seven basin states that rely on the river 60 days to come up with a plan to cut between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water. No deals were reached by the Aug. 16 deadline. Instead, the federal government announced that in the Lower Basin, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico must collectively cut 721,000 acre-feet next year. California, also in the Lower Basin, isn’t required to contribute to the water savings measure in 2023.

These cuts are part of a tiered response to low water levels, agreed upon in earlier Drought Contingency Plans.

Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico sent a letter to the Bureau in mid-July detailing ways they’ll address the crisis on the river. They don’t include plans for actual cuts, instead they called for reinstatement of other conservation plans.

Gene Shawcroft, the Colorado River Commissioner for Utah and chair of the Colorado River Authority of Utah, said “it’s a little disappointing” Lower Basin states – Arizona, Nevada and California – didn’t form a plan in time. Shawcroft and other Upper Basin state leaders have said it’s on those states, which use the most water, to make the biggest conservation moves.

“The Upper Basin States put a plan together and shared that with the world,” he said during a press conference Tuesday. “But we're still waiting on the lower division states. Regardless of plans, everyone's going to have to live with less water.”

Shawcroft said Utah is ramping up conservation efforts, but will continue “fighting aggressively” to use the water that the state has been allocated. That includes controversial projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline, which would pipe more than 80,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir to booming Washington County. The six other basin states sent a letter in 2020 to the federal government opposing the pipeline project.

“We will continue to stretch that water supply by our conservation efforts, and there will still be some additional development that will need to occur as we move into the future,” Shawcroft said.

Environmental groups said leadership at the federal and state level is lacking to address the river’s woes. A coalition has called on Congress to study the plumbing at Glen Canyon Dam so it can continue to operate as water levels drop.

Nick Halberg, a research analyst at Utah Rivers Council, said the Upper Basin, including Utah, needs to step up and take more responsibility. The group released a report in December claiming these states are overusing their share of water.

“We've seen the Upper Basin sort of fail to step up to meet this urgent demand,” he said at a press conference Tuesday. “Projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline make absolutely no sense in the future and the reality that we're living in now. If river flows continue to decline, they'll become even harder to justify those types of projects.”

The Bureau also released a 24-month study that outlines the hydrology of the Colorado River, which has experienced drought for over 20 years. Currently, Lake Powell sits at 3,534 feet or 26% full. Downstream, Lake Mead is at 1,042 feet or 27% full. The agency predicts reservoir levels will continue to drop to critically low levels.

“Scientists have been talking about climate change in the Colorado River basin for decades now,” Halberg, of Utah Rivers Council, said. “So I think a lot of the situation we're in now has been sort of a slow build to the point we're at now.”

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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