DENVER (KDVR) — While the federal government announced water usage cuts for some states in the Colorado River watershed, the Centennial State won’t have to worry about the federal government forcing cuts just yet.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation set a deadline that expired Tuesday, calling on Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California to come up with a plan to slash water use by at least 15% to preserve the water levels in the river’s storage reservoirs, like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, from dropping more than they already have.
“The entire state of Colorado uses about 2 million acre-feet from the Colorado River every year, so we’re talking about a state’s worth of water that they had to come up with, and they only had a 60-day deadline to do it,” KUNC reporter Alex Hager said.
Hager covers water and the environment in the Colorado River Basin. He said the federal government has not announced how it plans to enforce states to reduce water usage by 2-4 million acre-feet, and people have questioned the legal authority the bureau has to enforce the cuts.
At the same time, a Tier 2 shortage for states in the lower river basin was announced to ensure Lake Mead water levels are high enough to generate electricity through the reservoir dam system. Now, communities downstream in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are expected to lose water supply from the cuts.
The cuts were made as part of a Drought Contingency Plan, but Hager said Colorado is “way further back in line” when it comes to states that will feel the most impact from water cuts among the states who share the river’s resources.
“However, they are not immune from getting asked to conserve,” Hager said, “which is exactly what we saw in this federal request.”
Hager said Colorado’s position is the states in the upper basin of the watershed are much more at the whim of Mother Nature, because our water levels overwhelmingly come from snowmelt off the high peaks.
“There are some years Colorado says, ‘We’re already taking shortages because Mother Nature gave us less water,’ and they say, ‘We think our neighbors to the south should have to do the same thing,'” Hager said.
Who feels the biggest squeeze from water cuts?
Hager said 70-80% of Colorado River waters across the seven states and Mexico go toward farmers and ranchers in the agriculture sector.
“When we’re looking at where water can come from when we conserve, a lot of times cities and people in them are saying, ‘Why don’t we turn to the biggest user, agriculture, and see if they can take some cuts first?'” Hager said.
Hager did point out some cities are ramping up water conservation initiatives. Aurora is considering banning non-functional turf on new development, and statewide initiatives put a stronger emphasis on xeriscaping.
Still, no matter how much cities and towns are focused on conservation efforts, the conversation meanders back to agriculture practices.
“When we look at the basin as a whole, for a long time agriculture has been seen as not quite untouchable, but really hard to mess with when it talks about how much water each sector gets to use,” Hager said. “Now people are saying, ‘Look, we have to conserve water, we have to conserve somewhere, and agriculture is using more than any other group, so that makes sense as a place to cut.'”
So far, the Bureau of Reclamation has not announced any restrictions for Colorado’s use of the Colorado River, and Hager said experts in water use are questioning the legal authority the bureau has to mandate the cuts.
FOX31’s Evan Kruegel has been looking into the Colorado River’s use and will have in-depth reporting on the Colorado River Crisis next week.