‘Brought of disaster’: 2023 is critical year for Colorado River as reservoirs sink towards ‘death pool’


Deep uncertainty looms over Colorado River and 40 million people depend on it for water supply like a basin Entering an important year can determine its future stability.

Affected by decades of overuse and human-caused climate change, the river’s water needs have outstripped its supply. In 2023, federal and state officials must find ways to keep as much 4 million acres-feet of water in Lakes Mead and Powell — 30% of what the Colorado River states have historically used.

Failure to do so means that either of these lakes, the largest man-made reservoirs in the country, could become a “dead pool” in the next two years, where water levels are too low to flow through dams and downstream. stream to communities and farmers. need it.

The cuts are needed on an unprecedented scale, and officials will fight a tough battle against a The drought lasted for many years to complete them. State officials have tried to take drastic measures to cut their use this year, but the river’s continued decline is an alarming reality.

Western state officials wrote a letter in May agreeing to leave 1 million acres of water in Lake Powell. They then watched the same amount of water disappear as the system lost and evaporated.

Tom Buschatzke, Arizona’s senior water official told CNN: “Everything we tried to do through the May 3 letter was wiped out by mother nature. “We have to understand that it could happen to us again. It has happened to us almost every year for the past few years.”

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton recently gave the states a January 31 deadline to figure out how voluntarily cut down on their use. If they can’t do it themselves, top federal water officials say they will step in and make the required cuts to save the system.

Experts told CNN that even with good winter and spring flows, water managers still need to plan for the worst-case scenario.

“You cannot live without water in reservoirs hoping for a good year; you need to top up the system,” Eric Kuhn, former manager of the Colorado River Water Reserve, told CNN. “People realize that you can’t live on the brink of disaster.”

The All-American Canal flows near a stretch of the US-Mexico border in September. The canal draws water from the Colorado River to irrigate US farms along the Arizona and California border with Mexico.

Anxiety is growing in the West as reservoir levels plummet. Interstate negotiations over voluntary water cuts are intense and closely watched, especially between the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

Those talks have stalled amid disagreement over how much water each state should sacrifice and how much farmers, tribal states and cities should be paid to reduce their water consumption.

The state negotiators themselves are waiting for the federations to decide how to disburse funds $4 billion in drought reliefwhich the Biden administration has invoked from the Inflation Reduction Act is essentially paying people who don’t use water.

“I wouldn’t say it paused anything,” Buschatzke told CNN.

However, he said, “it makes it a little more difficult because of the uncertainty and the unknown” between the amount of money the federal government provides and the voluntary cuts that counties are willing to make. perform.

Other important transactions have been made. In November, the Biden administration pledged millions of federal dollars to help restore California’s endangered Salton Sea – a key need from Southern California’s powerful Royal Irrigation. With that funding, other states like Arizona are hoping Imperial and other California water users agree to even more cuts.

There is also a clear possibility that the federal government will step in if voluntary cuts are not achieved. But that plan will almost certainly be greeted with a court challenge.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, told CNN that federal officials are working carefully to prepare for the possibility of them being sued for mandatory cuts, “so they can prove it wasn’t an arbitrary act.” “.

According to Porter, at a Colorado River water users conference in December, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tanya Trujillo mentioned that possibility.

“She said, ‘We knew we were going to get sued,’” Porter said.

Visitors watch the sunrise over miniature Lake Powell from Alstrom Point in Big Water, Utah, in September.

While the West Coast countries have seen a benefits in rainfall In recent weeks — California’s snow is about 150% heavier than average so far this winter — the weather over the Colorado River Basin in Intermountain West has been less humid. Snow and ice in parts of the upper basin in Utah and Colorado were slightly above average, but the mountains in the lower basin had below average snow.

Overall, the outlook from the National Weather Service’s River Prediction Center for the Colorado River Basin suggests that spring snowmelt will be close to average.

But what the watershed needs is weeks of above-average snowfall, which melts in the spring and flows downstream to replenish reservoirs. And finally, the Colorado River could not be saved by infrequent wet winters amid increasing prolonged drought.

“This good year is not enough to ease the stress on the Colorado River,” said Paul Miller, hydrologist at the Office of Rivers Forecasting. “It will take many consecutive years above this average to fill many large reservoirs, especially Lake Powell.”

An icy Colorado River in February 2022 in Grand County, Colorado.

Park visitors looking at

Isla Simpson, a climate scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said human-caused climate change will “almost certainly” make dry years worse.

Since the 1980s, the Southwest region has seen a gradual decrease in rainfall. Simpson, who co-leads a federal task force on drought, said decades-long lack of rain and an increase in planet-warming emissions have made conditions worse.

Dry air evaporates water from the soil during prolonged periods of heat. This is another reason why water shortages are raging in the Colorado River; Not only is there enough rain to fill the reservoirs, but the air also sucks up water from what’s left of them.

“We need to be very concerned about the future of the Colorado River,” says Simpson.

There is also a high chance that the shortage of rain and heavy snowfall will not go away anytime soon, she said. La Niña is expected to last through winter, which often causes the jet stream – the upper-level wind that carries storms around the globe – to shift northward. That means less rainfall for an area that desperately needs it.

All of this means that even with heavy snowfall this winter, the Colorado River’s problems remain unresolved.

“A good year doesn’t fix us – even a few good years won’t fix us,” says Buschatzke. “We have to rebuild that bank account.”


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