Despite giving states more time to negotiate, federal officials said some cuts were coming to parts of the Colorado River Basin

Chris Outcalt

Aug 16, 2022

Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County shows the effect of a water draw down on October 29, 2021. The reservoir has lowered because water from it is being released downstream to increase the volume of water available to downstream users that rely on the Colorado River. Blue Mesa is fed by the Gunnison River, one of the Colorado River’s largest tributaries. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Federal officials Tuesday gave more time to Colorado and its neighboring states to agree on the massive cuts in Colorado River use needed to protect the country’s two largest reservoirs, even as they announced that historic cuts were coming to parts of the Southwest.   

Officials said that Lake Mead, east of Las Vegas, would operate in its first-ever “level 2a shortage condition” in 2023, triggering previously agreed upon reductions in water use in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. California does not take cuts under this shortage level.

In Arizona, the cuts amount to 592,000 acre-feet, or 21% of the state’s annual apportionment. In Nevada, the cuts will be 92,000 acre-feet, or about 8%. And Mexico will take a 7% or 104,000 acre-foot hit.  

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said during a Tuesday call with reporters that the federal government would continue to work with the seven Colorado River Basin states to find consensus on new water cuts in response to federal officials identifying the need for 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in water savings needed next year. Officials identified those cuts as necessary to protect critical infrastructure at Lake Powell and Lake Mead as well as hydropower production.

Touton, however, gave no indication as to what specific cuts the federal government is willing to make if a collective agreement is not eventually reached. Instead, she said, “more information will be forthcoming regarding next steps and the process that we will follow.”

There was little in today’s announcement that was responsive to the commissioner’s call for 2 to 4 million acre-feet reduction in use, said Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University. 

“None of the numbers that were talked about today had anything to do with the 2 to 4 million acre-foot call,” Schmidt said. “Essentially, in the nicest of ways, the announcement today said we aren’t there yet. I’m not going to say we failed because we can’t fail. But they certainly said ‘we missed the deadline and we’re going to keep working at it.’”

Federal officials initially gave the states two months to come up with ideas for how to meet that target, with a Tuesday deadline.

“There are a lot of conversations about how we collectively mitigate the impacts of drought and climate change on the Colorado River and our shared goal of formulating durable and equitable solutions,” Touton said during the call. “But to date, the states collectively have not identified and adopted specific actions of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system.”

Touton and other officials continually stressed the need for a collaborative approach. 

“We’re continuing to work with the basin states because we believe that the solution here is one of partnership,” Touton said. 

Essentially, in the nicest of ways, the announcement today said we aren’t there yet.Director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University Jack Schmidt

“There’s still time for that,” said Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the interior.

Water managers also said they would study whether it might be possible to operate Lake Powell at a level below what is now considered “deadpool,” the level at which water cannot flow beyond the dam.   

The bureau also said it would work with the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, tribes and other stakeholders to implement “substantial releases from Upper Basin reservoirs” to help prop up the water level at Powell.  

Lake Powell could fall below elevation 3,490, the lowest level at which Glen Canyon Dam can generate hydropower, as early as sometime next year, according to the bureau’s latest report. 

Upper Basin looks south

Flows on the Colorado River have declined roughly 20% since 2000 amid a drought scientists believe is the driest 22-year stretch in the past 1,200 years. 

Forty million people rely on the Colorado River for drinking water and farmers and ranchers use the water to irrigate millions of acres of farmland. 

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” assistant secretary for water and science Tanya Trujillo said in a written statement. “In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced.” 

The Upper Basin responded to the commissioner’s call for cuts in a July 18 letter. The letter laid out an Upper Basin plan for conservation, but did not identify a specific amount of water that could be saved. 

Glen Canyon Dam at Page, Arizona, holds back the massive Lake Powell. Since this photo was taken on Aug. 21, 2021, drought conditions in the West have led levels of water in the lake to drop near where the dam will no longer be able to generate electricity. (Bureau of Land Management)

Signed by Charles Cullom, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, the letter noted that the options available to the Upper Basin states to help maintain critical reservoir elevations are “limited,” and that “significant actions” would need to be taken downstream of Lake Powell.

Top water officials in Colorado have maintained the majority of the cuts identified by the commissioner would need to come where most of the water is used — the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. 

Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell said discussions about how to cut water use will continue among the seven basin states. 

“I think what we say today is there is not a plan out of the Lower Basin states,” Mitchell said. “I’m still hopeful that there will be discussions with our Lower Basin comrades to come up with something.”

Mitchell also reiterated that the Upper Basin plan would not be as effective without significant action downstream. 

“This will require leadership from the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and bold action across the Basin,” Mitchell said in a statement. “Downstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, depletions must come into balance with available supply.”

In 2021, according to Bureau of Reclamation numbers compiled by the UCRC, the Upper Basin used about 3.5 million acre-feet. That provisional number includes water lost to evaporation. The UCRC numbers show 2021 water use plus evaporation losses in the Lower Basin at nearly 10 million acre-feet, which includes about a 1.5 million acre-foot portion for Mexico. 

Water lost to evaporation




Colorado River crisis continues

Feds take a pass on draconian cuts–for now

Jonathan P. Thompson Aug 17


Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo

THE NEWS: “Today is a very important day for the Colorado River Basin. We are facing unprecedented challenges.” So said Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Interior Department, at an Aug. 16 press conference, setting the stage for the federal government to dive in and mandate drastic water use cuts to stem a crisis on the Colorado River. Instead, Interior Department officials merely dipped their toes into the diminishing waters, which is my weak, metaphorical way of saying that they stopped well short of making the draconian cuts, even though the states blew by a deadline to do it themselves.

THE CONTEXT: On Nov. 9, 1922, the seven Colorado River Basin states (without any input from the dozens of tribal nations in the Basin) signed onto the Colorado River Compact, which divvied up the river’s waters between the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada) and the Upper Basin (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico). At the time the signers believed an average of 16.4 million acre feet (maf) of water flowed through the river naturally each year, giving 15 maf for the states to divide up (the extra would go to Mexico). 

The Upper Basin states would allow an average of 7.5 maf per year (75 maf every ten years) to flow to the Lower Basin, theoretically allowing the Upper Basin states collectively to withdraw the same amount. The Upper Basin divided their share up by percentages, with Colorado getting the most (51.75% or 3.9 maf), New Mexico getting the least (11%, or 840,000 acre feet), and the others falling in between. Down south California got 4.4 maf; Arizona 2.8 maf; and Nevada 300,000 acre feet. 

Although the 30 tribal nations in the Basin were not included in negotiations, the Compact does specify that the agreement does not affect the substantial tribal water rights recognized by the 1908 Winters v. United States Supreme Court decision. That means the tribes’ share of the water would come from the states’ portions. 

Over time it became more and more clear that there wasn’t nearly as much water in the river as folks previously believed. Sure, during good years (the 1980s), there could be as much as 25 million acre feet flowing into Lake Powell. But the next year flows might plummet to 10 maf. At first this wasn’t a problem. The reservoirs, acting like big, murky savings accounts, were doing their job. During good years the river deposited water into the accounts and built up enough savings to get the states through several bad years, when the states could draw down their savings, allowing the Upper Basin States to pull out their allotted amount while still sending 7.5 maf downstream. 

But there was a problem—two of them, really. First, the river started shrinking. In 1999 the Colorado River Basin entered the driest 23 year period on record, with the dry years getting dryer and outnumbering the wet years, which weren’t as wet as they once were. Yet the collective users of the water didn’t curb consumption during lean years. Instead, they actually used morewater—far more than the skies and the river delivered, thereby depleting the savings accounts known as Lakes Powell and Mead.

Lake Powell now is only 27% full (and dropping), the Basin’s storage system is at 34% of capacity, and both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are in danger of losing hydropower production capacity—which leads to all sorts of other problems—in the next couple of years if conditions don’t improve or the users don’t make substantial cutbacks. Last year a Tier 1 shortage was declared, requiring Arizona to cut its Colorado River withdrawals by just over 500,000 acre feet, and water managers took additional measures to prop up Lake Powell. That wasn’t enough. 

That’s why, on June 14, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton called on the Colorado River Basin states to come up with 2 to 4 million acre feet in additional cuts within 60 days—or else. The deadline came and went days ago, and the states reportedly are nowhere near the necessary targets. Utah hasn’t even withdrawn its proposal to suck additional water out of the system via the proposed Lake Powell pipeline. 

“… the last sixty-two days produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to forestall the looming crisis,” wrote the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s John Entsminger in a strongly worded letter to the Interior Department. “The magnitude of the problem is so large that every single water user in every single sector must contribute solutions to this problem regardless of the priority system.” Entsminger essentially begged the feds to step in and turn off some taps.

But if that was the sort of decisive action that some observers expected and hoped for in yesterday’s press conference, they went away disappointed. The Interior Department promised “urgent action” yesterday. But when reporters asked the officials whether or not they were actually mandating cuts, Touton said they were “starting the process” and emphasized the need for a “consensus solution,” but remained vague as to what any of that means. 

That’s not to say the feds are doing nothing. They will implement Tier 2a restrictions on the Lower Basin states, meaning Arizona will have to cut withdrawals by an additional 80,000 acre feet (they are already down 512,000 af under Tier 1 cutbacks¹) and Nevada by 25,000 acre feet. Of course, that’s not anywhere near the 2 million to 4 million that’s needed. Also, the Bureau of Reclamation will continue to limit releases from Glen Canyon Dam to 7 maf (rather than the previous 7.5 maf) and will probably release more water from upstream reservoirs to shore up Lake Powell’s water levels. 

Meanwhile, they will continue to work with the states and tribes to come up with a solution. Time’s running out. “Without prompt, responsive actions,” Trujillo said, “the Colorado River will face a future of uncertainty and conflict.”

Note that this graph is only for the Upper Basin consumptive use and losses. For more data on consumption see the post below:

Among those who will be disappointed in the lack of drastic cuts on the Colorado will be … Powellheadz? Yeah, the Lake Powell fan club (the best description of Powellheadz I could come up with) teamed up with the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a motorized off-road advocacy group, to call on all seven Colorado Basin states to significantly reduce withdrawals beginning next year. The goal? Refill Lake Powell (and Mead) to improve recreation. Seriously. 

I guess you could say this is the antithesis to the Drain Lake Powell/Fill Mead First movement. Last week the groups released their policy proposal entitled, “Fill Lake Powell: The path to 3,588.” That number refers to the minimum surface level of the reservoir at which most boat ramps are usable and recreation is prime. That would mean raising the surface of the reservoir about 55 feet from the current level. To get there, the report finds, would require cutting water consumption by about 4 million acre feet per year, beginning ASAP. 

Hmmm… Well. Okay. So, the states can’t even seem to come up with 1 million acre feet to cut in order to keep the entire Colorado River system from collapse, but they’re going to come up with 4 million acre feet so that folks can put their motorboats in the lake? Good luck with that!


A post shared by Lake Powell (@powellheadz)


  1. Now, at this critical stage, the water managers are finally acknowledging that evaporation needs to come into the accounting process!

    The water balance equation for a reservoir looks simple:

    1) S = I – E – L- U

    S= Storage (the reservoir), I = Input from runoff into the reservoir, rivers feeding the reservoir, and water sent to the reservoir from other reservoirs, E = Evaporation, L = Infiltration into the ground water system, and U = Use by society (urban, ag, energy, manufacturing).

    It isn’t. Each term in 1) is time dependent and dependent upon one another; it is highly non-linear (feedbacks abound). U, in particular, is dependent on water law and government policy, non-physical feedback.

    However, up to now it has looked like this to water managers

    2) S = I – U, leaving out important non-consumptive loss terms, E and L, that have been very important over the life of the reservoir. The engineers well knew of that importance so I damn them with “willful ignorance”, a legal term.

    The story reports that major Upper Basin reservoirs are being lowered to “save” the hydropower capability of Mead and Powell. That is incorrect because water managers have used 2) instead of 1). That water is being sent to Mead and Powell to account for the non-consumptive losses to E and L. In other words, precious Upper Basin water is being sent to the Lower Basin to be lost to evaporation!

    Reclamation, Schmidt, Udall, etc do not know what E or L is. At best they have very uncertain estimates. No one on planet Earth knows how to correctly estimate evaporation from reservoirs or lakes; especially those in complex terrain like Mead and Powell.

    The current full Mead and Powell estimate for E is 1.5 million af/yr. As the water level drops, heat content rises (especially in steep walled canyons because surface area remains constant to solar input), water temperature rises and evaporation potential rises faster. So it is likely that rough estimate for E is relatively constant as the volume drops.

    Sometime in the future I’ll pose the problem of runaway evaporation which may threaten Lower Basin reservoirs as they enter the jaws of climate change.

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