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More extraordinary cuts to CO River water is weeks away

Posted at 8:07 PM, Jun 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-16 23:07:37-04

The situation on the Colorado River is getting more dire by the day.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the seven states that have rights to the river — Arizona, Nevada, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — will need to come up with a plan to conserve 2- to 4-million-acre feet of additional water in 2023. The Republic of Mexico, which is entitled to a portion of water, will also be involved in negotiations.

This amount is addition to the already agreed upon cuts that will likely take effect next year as a result of the anticipated Tier 2 drought declaration for the river and the 500+ Plan that Arizona, Nevada and California agreed to in December 2021. That plan is holding back a total of 1 million acre-feet of water to sustain Lake Mead this year and next.

The newest cuts were revealed in a U.S. Senate hearing in the Natural Resources Committee about the 22-year drought in the West on Tuesday.

"There's so much to this that is unprecedented and that is true. But unprecedented is now the reality and the normal in which Reclamation must manage our system," said Bureau Commissioner Camille Touton.

While Arizona gets 36% of its water supply from the river, Southern Nevada gets 90% of its water from the Colorado. The Southern Nevada region includes Las Vegas.

"What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating and the moment of reckoning is near," said John Entsminger, who manages the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Arizona water experts say although the cuts are coming much faster than anyone forecasted, they are not a surprise.

Farmers in Pinal County were severely affected by the Tier 1 drought cuts in 2022. Kathryn Sorensen, who serves as director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said Arizona cities have been preparing for many years for a future with significantly less Colorado River water.

"We've known for decades that there is a real possibility that our water supplies would be cut and so for the most part the cities have planned very proactively," she said.

River water is transported to Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties via the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile canal system that starts in Lake Havasu and ends in Tucson. CAP is entitled to about 1.4 million acre-feet of water annually that gets distributed to farmers, tribes, and cities.

But the CAP water that cities receive has always been at risk because Arizona has junior rights to the water. That means Arizona feels any cuts first and are usually the deepest. Sorensen said for years cities have been banking much of their CAP water underground for future use.

"We are blessed here in Central Arizona we do have very plentiful aquifers and we have been meticulously storing Colorado River water in those aquifers for exactly this kind of scenario," she said.

The states have until mid-August to work out how big of a hit each one will take. But if an agreement is not reached, the Bureau said it is prepared to make the decision for them.

During the hearing, Senator Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) asked the Commissioner if she would make the cuts without respect to priority, given that Arizona would be first in line to have more reductions unlike California which has more senior rights to the water.

"Yes. We will protect the system but we're not at that position point yet so let's get to the table and let's figure this out by August," Touton said.