‘Extremely serious:’ Federal regulators declare first-ever shortage on the Colorado River as water officials look toward a drier future

Arizona and Nevada will face first-ever cuts to their Colorado River supplies next year, federal officials reported Monday. The shortage declaration is a historic determination for a watershed parched by aridification and overuse and which supports roughly 40 million people in the Southwest, including Las Vegas. 

The cuts announced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation mark a significant moment in the management of a river that stretches across seven states and two countries, winding from Wyoming to Mexico and diverted along the way for use by cities, tribes, agriculture and businesses.

In a statement, Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for water and science, said "the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges."

“The only way to address these challenges and climate change is to utilize the best available science and to work cooperatively across the landscapes and communities that rely on the Colorado River," she said. "That is precisely the focus of the White House Interagency Drought Working Group — a multi-agency partnership created to collaborate with states, tribes, farmers and communities impacted by drought and climate change to build and enhance regional resilience.”

Southwest water officials have seen the cuts coming for more than a decade, going as far as to outline in detail how shortages would work in multistate agreements. But the speed at which the cuts have come has been striking for the public. This summer, the river’s two largest reservoirs — banks to store water — dropped to their lowest levels since they were first filled last century.

"At the real foundational level, we've got a water balance problem,” said Anne Castle, a fellow at the University of Colorado Law School and a former Interior Department official. “We have to use less water in order to bring the system into balance. That's the real foundational issue.”

The cuts will reduce the amount of water that Arizona and Nevada are allowed to divert from Lake Mead. The reductions in water deliveries, outlined in two major multistate agreements, will hit Arizona the hardest. The state is poised to lose nearly a fifth of its Colorado River supply, and agricultural producers in central Arizona are expected to face particularly challenging cuts.

In Nevada, the shortage declaration will not affect day-to-day water use, yet current and former Las Vegas water officials stress that the situation on the Colorado River is a serious one for the entire Southwest. The river accounts for about 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s drinking water. 

In an interview, John Entsminger, who runs the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the drought on the Colorado River is “extremely serious.” But, he added, it is important to recognize that the water authority’s resource plan shows a “safe and secure water supply through 2071.”

Beyond the practical implications, researchers and experts who study the Colorado River said the unprecedented shortage, amid an ongoing drought during a summer where the effects of climate change have been on full display, should serve as a warning for the whole Southwest.

Climate change is stressing an already overworked system. Hotter temperatures and prolonged drought are having a significant effect on not only how much precipitation accumulates on the mountains that feed the Colorado River, but also how snow runs off into the waterways that feed the river.

Entsminger said the greatest long-term risks to the Colorado River, from the water authority’s perspective, “are climate change impacting the amount of water that’s in the river and the ability or inability of seven states and the country of Mexico to adapt to those changing conditions.” 

The cuts are tied to the level of Lake Mead, based on a projection released each August. If that model shows the reservoir below 1075 feet above sea level in January of the next year, a first tier of cuts will kick in. This year, the model projects that the reservoir will hit 1,065.85 feet in January.

If snowpack accumulates in the headwaters of the Colorado River this winter, it could stave off further cuts. Yet record-low reservoirs put the watershed in a difficult position moving ahead.

“We’re dangling our toes over the edge at this point,” said Pat Mulroy, who managed the water authority for two decades and now serves as a senior fellow at the UNLV Boyd School of Law. 

The cuts come as Colorado River water managers face tough negotiations in the coming years over the future of a watershed facing a more arid future and less water to go around. So critical are the negotiations that there is intense discussion about the process for how they will proceed.

In 2007, the last time Colorado River managers agreed to operating guidelines for the river, the 29 federally-recognized tribes within the watershed were left out of the process, despite having rights to about 20 percent of the river.

With a new round of negotiations approaching, Nora McDowell, a project manager for the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, said that each tribal government should have a spot at the negotiating table.

“It's been an unbalanced approach. And I think a more balanced approach — the inclusion of the tribes — is critical and needs to be a key part of the negotiations coming up,” she said.

An official with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees the river, said in June that their “intent is to have an open and inclusive process” for upcoming negotiations. 

But what does that look like as states have already begun, at least informally, to lay down their markers? And how does it comport with a culture, among water users, of dealmaking in closed negotiating rooms or the hallways of Caesars Palace at an annual Colorado River conference?

“If it is true consultation, each of the tribes should have a seat at the table,” McDowell added. “Whether the government wants to have that or not, there’s no question about it: They should.”

What is clear is that water users across the basin must plan for a future where there is less to go around. The challenge is how to do that within the confines of current demands and existing rights, said Sarah Porter, the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. 

“Fundamentally, I think there needs to be a consensus that we are entering a drier future and our discussions really have to start from there,” Porter said during an interview last week. 

A sprinkler waters ornamental grass in Summerlin on Monday, June 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

In Las Vegas, the water authority is continuing to focus on conservation actions, like reminding residents that fall water restrictions go into effect on Sept. 1 and removing ornamental turf from the valley by 2026. This approach, water officials say, is why Las Vegas is prepared for the cuts. 

Of all the states that use the Colorado River, Nevada has the smallest allocation of just 300,000 acre-feet (an acre foot is the amount of water that can fill one acre to a depth of one foot). To put it in perspective, Arizona and California are entitled to 2.8 and 4.4 million acre-feet, respectively. 

Even with a small supply, Las Vegas has stretched it out through reuse — with water to spare. Because the water authority recycles most of its indoor water and with aggressive conservation measures in place, Nevada is already using about 50,000 acre-feet less than the full allocation. 

That means Las Vegas will be able to weather the cuts, which reduce the state’s allocation by 21,000 acre-feet next year. Further cuts could reduce Nevada’s allocation by 30,000 acre-feet. 

But the stability of Southern Nevada’s water supply rests on what happens over the next few years. Las Vegas has reduced use while hardening its infrastructure. With a third intake in Lake Mead, Southern Nevada can physically draw water from the reservoir under extreme conditions.

In the hopes of freeing up more Colorado River water, Las Vegas officials have also invested in a water recycling project with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. That project could be buoyed by the infrastructure bill, which includes funding for large-scale water recycling.

A construction crew is lowered into the Southern Nevada Water Authority's low-level-pumping station access shaft near Lake Mead on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

At the same time, Clark County is looking to plan for new growth, updating its antiquated Master Plan and development code while pushing to open up thousands of acres of federal public land for homes and businesses. Las Vegas is not alone. Officials in other Southwestern states also anticipate new growth. Over decades, new growth will continue to stretch the water budget. 

In recent decades, municipalities, including Las Vegas, have continued to grow their populations while keeping overall water use in check by reducing per-capita demand through conservation. 

"The cities in the Southwest have shown that population growth doesn't have to mean more water use,” Castle said last week. “And Las Vegas has done that particularly successfully.”

But growth across the Colorado River Basin concerns some conservationists and social justice groups. They worry that having more people dependent on the river will only add further strain.

“Instead of two million dependents, they will have three million dependents,” John Weisheit, a Utah-based conservationist with Living Rivers, said, referring to Las Vegas growth projections.

"Cities don't have to grow for the sake of growth,” he added.

Over the past year, Las Vegas has doubled-down on its conservation measures, requiring the removal of decorative turf — grass in medians and roundabouts — by 2026. The prohibition, passed by the Legislature, came as part of a recognition that voluntary conservation was no longer going to be enough. To pass the legislation, the water authority got buy-in from major business groups, convinced the measure was necessary as Clark County looks to grow. 

At the same time, Las Vegas is still reliant on the Colorado River for a majority of its water.

“Vegas comes the closest to having solved their own problems but being entirely dependent on the greater Colorado River system to solve its problems,” said John Fleck, a water researcher at the University of New Mexico whose work focuses on the river. 

The fact that Las Vegas depends so heavily on its Colorado River allocation makes the coming negotiations important. The negotiations will center around creating the playbook for operating the river in a drier future (the current guidelines for operating the river are set to expire in 2026).  

Boaters wait to launch at Lake Mead's Hemmingway Harbor on Friday, June 25, 2021. A sign warns boaters of low lake levels. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Experts said those negotiations have already started, at least in some respects, as states talk to each other and alliances around common interests appear to be forming between water users.

Entsminger said he likens the negotiations to a “very big wedding” with “a lot of tables, and lots of people moving around between the tables.” The negotiations do not happen all at once.

“One of the fundamental mistakes people misunderstand about the negotiation process is that there is one single table where these negotiations are being made,” Entsminger said. 

What is on the table — the range of discussion — is another open question. 

Entsminger said that he would like the negotiations to look several decades out. Doing so, he argued, would give water users the certainty to make much-needed investments in the river. 

“I think you need what I referred to as a sliding scale of operations,” he said. “I think you need shortage measures in the Lower Basin that account for extremely bad hydrology, like Lake Mead operating below 1000 feet, for instance. But I also think you need operations in place if you have extremely wet years. You see some climate scientists say the 21st century in the Rocky Mountains might vacillate between extreme drought and extreme floods.”

And at the center of the negotiations are several long-standing technical, yet consequential, issues about how the river is to be allocated and operated, especially under climate change. A recent working paper examined the legal issues around some of these ongoing controversies. 

Mulroy said the current discussion should be expanded to look at augmenting the system. She said the current approach, focused on reducing particular demands, is not going to be enough.

“Everybody’s talking about conservation and buying [agricultural] water or leasing ag water or partnering with ag,” Mulroy said in a recent interview. “All that is wonderful. But it’s not enough. I mean, at some point, we have to have a serious discussion of augmenting the system.”

As to what augmentation looks like, she said everything should be on the table. But during the interview, she specifically mentioned desalinization. Others, including officials in Arizona, are looking seriously at augmentation strategies, even holding public meetings on the subject. 

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, speaks during a news conference with other Colorado River Basin officials at Hoover Dam on Thursday, July 15, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

At the same time, groups are calling on officials close to the negotiations to seriously recognize the limits of the river and to plan for worst-case scenarios included in climate change models.

“It's one river,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, which represents a coalition of rural and environmental interests. “But entities want to manage it as seven or nine different rivers. Nevada's fate being tied to other states is unquestionable.”

Last month, his group helped lead a demonstration of environmentalists, elected leaders and Laughlin business officials at the Hoover Dam. Tick Segerblom, a Clark County Commissioner and a water authority board member, joined the group, as did J.B. Hamby, who sits on the board of the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest single water user of the Colorado River. 

They called for a moratorium on new dams and diversions that could further strain the shrinking supply. The coalition criticized Utah’s Lake Powell Pipeline, a controversial plan to pipe water from Lake Powell to a fast-growing area of Southern Utah, which includes St. George. 

When looking at the Lake Powell Pipeline, growth and other projects, Roerink said officials need to think differently about the limits of the river. How much new development can it really sustain?

"I view it as society has a lot of hard questions to ask itself and its leaders,” Roerink said last week. “What we've seen in past years is band-aids over gunshot wounds. The question now is are we going to keep doing the same thing over and over again? We're truly at a tipping point.”

McDowell, a former chairperson of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, said that’s one of the reasons it is so important to include other voices in the negotiations. Decision-makers, in the past, have not always managed the river with everyone’s interests in mind. She would like to see the river’s environment managed in a more holistic way, rather than have it be used as an economic tool.

"There have to be more laws in place to preserve the quality of the river and the health of the river,” McDowell said. “They have to look at it as a human being. It's the lifeblood for everyone who uses the river.”