PHOENIX — For the first time in history, the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees operations on the Colorado River, declared a water shortage at Lake Mead.
For 20 years, the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million Americans, has been losing water consistently and rapidly. Now, with Lake Mead levels at their lowest on record, mandatory water restrictions will be put in place starting in 2022 for Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico.
According to the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, if Lake Mead levels are at or below 1,075 feet, Tier 1 water restrictions are put in place, meaning 512,000 acre-feet of water would stay at the lake and not flow into Arizona.
As of today, the lake level is just shy of 1,068 feet, which is below the threshold. There are other tiers too if the water level drops more, which is possible in the coming years, according to Haley Paul, a Policy Director with the Audubon Society.
"What is the likelihood that in, say, 2023, or 2024, we're going to see even deeper cuts? I think that'll be a story to watch," Paul says.
Besides climate change being a reason for the water shortage, Paul says that over-allocation of the river's water supply also played a role.
”This would have caught up to us eventually, even without climate change, because politicians over-promised back in the 1920s what the river could offer. I think overall, we all need to get with the program of learning to live with a smaller river.”
Farmers in Pinal County will be directly impacted by the shortage. Sixty-five percent of their water that comes from the CAP will be cut next year and potentially the year after, too.
The Tier 1 water shortage will not impact cities and tribes that depend on Colorado River water, including Phoenix and Tucson.
Kim Mitchell, a Senior Water Policy Advisor with Western Resource Advocates, says communities need to acknowledge that the warm and dry that we've experienced for the majority of the past two decades isn't going away for a while.
"We can dial it down. We need to learn to adapt to changing conditions by reducing our demand. As the adage goes: live within our means," Mitchell says.