More questions than answers at Colorado River water meetings

‘Collective painful action is necessary now,’ one expert said as lakes Powell and Mead continue to shrink.

(Matt York | AP) Water from the Colorado River diverted through the Central Arizona Project fills an irrigation canal on Aug. 18, 2022, in Maricopa, Ariz. Living with less water in the U.S. Southwest is the focus for a conference starting Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas about the drought-stricken and overpromised Colorado River.

Las Vegas • Key questions resurfaced Thursday at a conference of Colorado River water administrators and users from seven U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico who are served by the shrinking river stricken by drought and climate change.

Who will bear the brunt of more water supply cuts, and how quickly?

What target goals need to be met for voluntary cutbacks in water use by the seven states that rely on the river before the federal government steps in?

What about controlling water evaporation once snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains enters the system and begins flowing to Mexico?

“I don’t have answers. I just have questions right now,” Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, said during a Colorado River Water Users Association panel about the state of the river.

The agency manages canals delivering water to much of Arizona, and was the first to feel the effects last year of drought-forced cuts to water flow from the river.

The Colorado provides drinking water to 40 million people, irrigation for millions of acres of agriculture and hydropower in the U.S. Southwest.

“Collective painful action is necessary now,” Chuck Cullom, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said during the same panel.

The river serves four headwater states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — and three so-called Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada. Tribes and Mexico also have water entitlements.

(John Locher | AP) A buoy sits high and dry on cracked earth previously under the waters of Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Boulder City, Nev., on June 28, 2022. Living with less water in the U.S. Southwest is the focus for a conference starting Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Las Vegas, about the drought-stricken and overpromised Colorado River.

Talk at sessions Wednesday and Thursday has focused on cooperation between users to solve shortages. But data showing less water flows into the river than is drawn from it has dominated over the conference. And after more than two decades of drought and climate change, the annual conference at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas has taken on a crisis vibe.

“The alternative to inaction is brutal and entirely obvious,” Cullom said of a domino effect of shortages that would be borne first by entities with junior water rights advancing to those with senior standing. “We agree all states, sectors and tribes must play a role.”

Deadlines about what to do are fast approaching, along with a deadline next Tuesday for public comment on a federal Bureau of Reclamation effort expected to yield a final report by summer about how to save about 15% of river water now distributed to recipients.

David Palumbo, the Bureau of Reclamation deputy commissioner of operations, told the conference panel with Cooke and Cullom Thursday he hoped for answers. Those include assumptions about the amount of water flowing in the river; effects of changing river flows in the Grand Canyon; how officials should administer reductions; and considerations about public health and safety.

Limiting population growth was not discussed as an option. Cooke said market forces, not the government, should dictate who moves where.

“People have the right to make a good choice or a bad choice,” he said, “and that includes moving to a spot that might not have water.”

The bureau controls the flow of the river with waterworks including the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona state line and Lake Powell formed by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah line.

[More: Countdown to dead pool: Lake Powell’s uncertain future as the Colorado River dwindles]

Lake Mead was at 100% capacity in mid-1999. Today it is 28% full. Lake Powell, which was last full in June 1980, is at 25%.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Boat ramp at Bullfrog Marina, in the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, on Wednesday, July 13, 2022.

Water deliveries were cut last year for the first time to Arizona and Nevada, mostly affecting farmers in Arizona under a 1968 agreement that gave the state junior rights to river water in exchange for U.S. funding to build a 336-mile (540-kilometer) canal to its major cities.

The bureau could impose top-down rules that override shares that states agreed to take in 1922 and subsequent agreements. However, although federal officials are due to speak on Friday — including Camille Touton, bureau commissioner, and two top Interior Department representatives — blockbuster announcements are not expected.

Reclamation officials last June told the seven states they’ll have to cut more, and left it to them to identify ways to cut the 15% next year, or have restrictions imposed on them. The federal government has also allocated billions of dollars to pay farmers to fallow fields and to help cities cut water use.

“We’re using more than we have,” Brenda Burman, former head of the Bureau of Reclamation, said during “Colorado River 101″ on Wednesday.

“We could be looking at a lot of cuts. We could be looking at a lot of changes,” she said.

As head of the bureau, Burman had warned the Water Users Association four years ago that drought action was needed. She’ll be replacing Cooke, who is retiring, as general manager of the Central Arizona Project.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, expressed frustration Thursday that people don’t realize that water is captured in Upper Basin states and then doled out by the bureau in Lower Basin states.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming “live within the means of the river every day,” she said.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority, compared dealing with the effects of drought on the Colorado River to a national emergency like a hurricane in Florida, and said the federal government could invest national emergency funds.

Entsminger also said it’s time to chart the amount of water lost to evaporation when usage and allocations are considered.

“We have not accounted for the amount of water we are losing from the system,” he said. “Call it evaporation, system losses, call it strawberry shortcake for all we care. Do the math and the analysis.”

Associated Press journalist Peter Prengaman in Las Vegas contributed to this report.