SALT LAKE CITY – Hydroelectric turbines may stop rotating. Las Vegas and Phoenix may be forced to limit water use or growth. Farmers may stop growing some crops, leaving fields of lettuce and melons to turn to dust.
Here are some of the dire consequences that could occur if states, cities and farms in the American West can’t agree on how to reduce the amount of water they take from the Colorado River.
For years, however, the seven states that depend on the river have allowed more water to be taken from it than nature can regenerate. Despite widespread recognition of the crisis, states missed a deadline this week to propose major cuts the federal government said were necessary.
Once again, the government failed to force tough decisions and refused to introduce cuts on its own, despite earlier threats to do so.
Any unilateral action by federal officials is likely to move conversations from negotiating tables to courtrooms and further delay action.
Cascading from the Rocky Mountains to the deserts of the Southwest, the river quenches the thirst of 40 million people in the United States and Mexico and supports a $15 billion-a-year agricultural industry.
But for a century, agreements governing how it is distributed have been based on erroneous assumptions about the amount of available water. As the climate changes and the region becomes hotter and drier, this discrepancy becomes impossible to ignore.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs that hold Colorado River water, have dropped to dangerously low levels faster than anyone expected. The recession threatens to disrupt hydroelectric power production and water that goes to cities and farms.
While everyone agrees that the stakes are high, it is difficult for states and the US government to reach a consensus on what to do.
People were “hoping to prevent this day,” said Felicia Marcus, a former top official in California, which has the largest water rights to the river. “But now I think we can’t expect Mother Nature to bail us out next year. It’s time for some of those really tough decisions.”
The river also includes Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Mexico, and some tribes.
For years, officials have warned about the state of the river, but also assured people that the system will not fail. That two-part message took center stage this week when states failed to meet a deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation to propose 15-30% reductions in water use.
When the deadline ended on Tuesday, the potentially dramatic moment was a shrug. Officials said they still believe the states will reach a deal if given more time.
Visiting California the next day, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Tuton repeatedly dodged questions about what might happen next. She did not provide any specifics about what the bureau’s more aggressive action might look like or when it might happen.
The federal government, she said, is “ready to move forward on its own.” But officials “will continue to talk to everyone about what the process is.”
Not everyone is satisfied with this approach.
“I’m asking them to at least explain very clearly how this threat will arise,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority CEO John Entsminger.
Entzminger and his colleagues in Arizona, Utah and California, as well as local officials in and around Phoenix, also echoed what has become a common refrain: They said they were deeply concerned about the river’s future but wanted to reassure their water users that the river would not stop flowing. in the near future.
“This is not a situation where people have to worry about running out of water in days, weeks or even months. But it’s pretty clear that this whole river system is going through something that’s never been done before,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary of natural resources.
The cuts will force tough decisions about who needs to live less. Water bills can rise as states use other sources and apply technologies such as wastewater recycling to make up the difference.
In some places, officials have voluntarily imposed strict conservation measures, including restricting lawn watering and paying farmers not to seed their fields, even banning new water connections. Climate legislation signed into law by President Joe Biden on Tuesday includes $4 billion that could be used to pay Colorado River users for reductions, but it’s unclear how that would work.
The shrinking river has fueled tensions between Rocky Mountain states and their downstream neighbors over who should shoulder the burden. It also pits growing cities against agricultural regions.
In Pinal County, Arizona, Kelly Anderson grows specialty crops for the flower industry and leases land to alfalfa farmers whose crops feed cattle on nearby dairy farms. He expects about half of the acreage to remain unplanted next year after farmers in the region lose access to the river.
Although farmers use most of the water, they have fewer opportunities to save than cities, which can more easily recycle water or use other sources. The river is a source of life in places like California’s Imperial Valley, where vegetables like broccoli, onions and carrots grow. Water scarcity can cause ripples throughout the food system.
Not only the state is at the table. Native American tribes hold some of the oldest water rights and are in a unique negotiating position because the federal government has a duty to protect their interests.
The Colorado River Indian tribes along the Arizona-California border historically contributed water to Lake Mead. They could be summoned again.
“Our rights as elders do not mean that we can or should sit on the sidelines,” said Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores. “We will not let this river die.”
The basin’s upper states — Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming — argue they shouldn’t face cuts because they historically haven’t used all the water they were promised a century ago.
They want to protect their share in anticipation of population growth and are not pursuing water conservation policies to the extent of states like Arizona and Nevada.
Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said many in the Rockies are under the mistaken belief that their water rights are safe, that cuts will continue to hit downstream neighbors and that one wet winter could change the river’s fall.
“If we don’t agree on what the crisis is, we won’t have the momentum to come up with a solution,” he said.
Arizona, Nevada and California say they’re willing to put water or money on the table, but so far it hasn’t been enough to reach an agreement.
A growing number of veteran officials and environmental advocates say both states and the federal government are sending mixed messages, stressing the gravity of the situation but delaying meaningful action.
James Eklund, an attorney and former director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the reduction in reservoirs presents an opportunity to rethink how to manage the river and encourage conservation — if only officials take advantage of it.
Bureaucrats, he said, continue to think they can delay change. The problem is that “it doesn’t really work because a lack of action means we’re headed for a cliff.”
Ronayne reported from Madera, California. Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca contributed from Flagstaff, Arizona.
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