Two people walk on muddy earth while in the distance, across bands of dry ground and tufts of brown vegetation, a very large rock juts out of the landscape.
A photo from March shows Lone Rock Beach on Lake Powell in Utah, an area that used to be underwater.Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

States in the Colorado River basin are scrambling to propose steep cuts in the water they’ll use from the river next year, in response to a call by the federal government for immediate, drastic efforts to keep the river’s main storage reservoirs from reaching critically low levels.

The request comes with the Southwest still in the grip of a severe two-decade drought that shows no signs of letting up. And it comes on top of earlier, less desperate, efforts to keep more water in the two reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, including a first-ever shortage declaration last year that cut water to farmers in Arizona.

Satellite images 22 years apart show how far the level of water in Lake Mead has dropped

The call to conserve up to an additional 4 million acre-feet of water, an amount equal to about one-third of the Colorado’s current annual flow, is just for 2023. But the long-term outlook for the Colorado is bleak, as climate change continues to affect runoff into the river and reduces the likelihood of a series of wet years that could end the drought.

The request for cuts has further exposed the fault lines between the upper basin states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming and the lower basin states, California, Arizona and Nevada. The upper basin states note that they do not use all the water allocated to them, and that the most significant cuts will have to come from the lower basin states, which use more than their allocated share.

Apart from the immediate crisis regarding the two reservoirs, experts in Western water issues writing Thursday in the journal Science say significant policy changes could stabilize the river over the long term, even if the drought continues. But concessions that “may be unthinkable at the moment” must be implemented soon, they wrote.

Water managers from the states, irrigation districts, Native tribes and others are discussing proposals for steep 2023 cuts, which must be submitted to the Bureau of Reclamation next month. The reductions are expected to fall most heavily on agriculture, which uses about three-quarters of Colorado water, and on the lower basin states.



See How Far Water Levels in Lake Mead Have Fallen

July 22, 2022

Winston Choi-Schagrin

A comparison of satellite images from NASA’s Landsat 7 and 8 show Lake Mead’s water levels on a 22-year course of shrinking. Images by Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory

In 2000, Lake Mead was full of deep, midnight-blue water that flooded the banks of the rivers that fed it. But 20 years later, it has shrunken drastically. And its basins are lighter, too, almost teal in places, a sign of increasingly shallow waters connected by extraordinarily skinny canyons.

In new images from this month, the lake is encircled now by a puckered shoreline and a white shadow, the so-called bathtub ring, remnants of salts and minerals left behind on the canyon walls by receding water.

“These reservoirs were stunningly full 20 years ago,” said Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society, referring to Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two large reservoirs on the Colorado River. The low levels at Lake Mead are indicative of dangerously low levels throughout the entire Colorado River basin. Now the basin “finds itself perilously close to a Day Zero situation,” Ms. Pitt said, referring to the point at which the reservoir goes dry.


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