Water out West is disappearing. Seven states, 30 tribes, and millions of people will need to adjust.
In early August 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the first ever Tier 1 shortage for the Colorado River, based on the agency’s projection that Lake Mead would drop below a threshold of 1,075 feet above sea level in January. Water levels in the river’s two main reservoirs—Lake Powell (behind Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona) and Lake Mead (behind Hoover Dam on the Arizona–Nevada border)—are now at their lowest since they were filled and flows in the river have declined. A hotter, drier climate exacerbated by climate change means that less snowmelt runs off into the river because it is first absorbed by parched soils. In this aridifying climate, the river’s many users—cities, tribes, agriculture, industry, and even environmental restoration practitioners—are thinking about a future with less water. As the crisis accelerates, the entanglement of regulations that have been put in place over the past century, and the development boom in the West, mean that the question of who gets what water and when is more pressing than ever.
The Colorado River provides water to seven states and 40 million people as it flows for 1,450 miles from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California (which it reaches only in the very wettest years). The watershed is legally divided into upper (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah) and lower (California, Arizona, Nevada) basins, governed by a 1922 compact and many additional legal agreements signed in subsequent years, including a 1944 treaty with Mexico. Those agreements divided the river’s water between the United States and Mexico—with both the upper and lower basin states in the United States receiving 7.5 million acre-feet, and the remaining 1.5 million acre-feet going to Mexico. The Tier 1 declaration reduces water deliveries from the river to Arizona and Nevada in the lower basin.
According to researchers at Arizona State University, the original compact, on which all of the other agreements are based, overestimated how much water was available in the system. “Our policy and management [are] such that we have created a demand structure that is greater than the natural flow of the river,” says Dave White, the director of the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at Arizona State University. On top of the hydrological miscalculations in the compact comes the current extended drought, one of the worst since record keeping began and comparable to a multiyear drought that scorched the American West in the 1500s. For the water shortage in the river basin to change, a series of “unusually wet” years would need to occur, explains John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program. “The wettest recent year, 2011, added about five million acre-feet of stored water to the system. It would take four consecutive years like that to bring storage up to the average we’ve had in storage since 1980, when Glen Canyon Dam was finished [being filled].”
As the drought continues and the water supply shrinks, representatives of the various claims are once again renegotiating the operating framework and guidelines for water allocations from the river, a perpetual process that is never really finished. In 2007, the Bureau of Reclamation published a Record of Decision in which some states agreed to reduce their water use if the water in Lake Mead and Powell fell to certain levels, or tiers. And additional stopgap measures can be put in place when crises occur. In 2019, as a result of continuing hot, dry conditions and lack of precipitation in the basin, the states agreed on one such stopgap measure, the Drought Contingency Plan, which called for even deeper cuts to water allocations and was intended to get the states through 2026. John Berggren, a water policy analyst with Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to land, air, and water protection, is concerned that another emergency measure may be needed before then, however. “We all knew things were getting bad, but how quickly the bottom is starting to fall out is pretty alarming,” he says. While the federal government oversees the negotiations and agreements and provides modeled predictions of drought conditions and water supply, it is nonetheless largely up to the states to manage the basin. “The federal government has traditionally been hesitant to step in and impose solutions, preferring to allow the states to work things out among themselves,” Fleck says.
The Tier 1 declaration reduces Arizona’s yearly allocation by 512,000 acre-feet and Nevada’s by 21,000 acre-feet. According to Stefanie Smallhouse, the president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, farmers in Pinal County who produce alfalfa, cotton, feed crops for livestock, and some produce will lose about half their supply of irrigation water from the river (although about 30 percent of that loss will be mitigated by water transfers from other users in the system). After 2023, they will have to transition to pumping groundwater. Smallhouse says groundwater resources have recovered since the 1980s when the state instituted a groundwater management plan, but pumping is not a sustainable solution. “Over the course of the next five years, 30 to 40 percent of the farmland within that area will have to be fallowed,” she says. “Essentially it’s like losing 40 percent of your income.”
Smallhouse points out that seed from the cotton grown in Pinal County is distributed throughout the United States and that the crops grown in the area supply much of the livestock industry. “The loss of irrigation water for the farms in this county is going to reverberate throughout the entire state and certain regions of the country,” she says.
In May, water levels in Lake Mead dropped below 1,050 feet above sea level, which will trigger a Tier 2 shortage.
The Bureau of Reclamation is likely to announce Tier 2 in August, and it will go into effect in 2023, White explains. “As the levels decline even further within that tier, you can start to see some reductions to the other states, including in particular Nevada and California in the lower basin.”
If water levels drop to 1,025 feet above sea level (Tier 3), Arizona would receive less than 75 percent of its full allocation, municipal and industrial users would start to feel an impact, and the consequences could be widespread, White says. “When folks in Chicago eat their kale or wedge salads, they are eating Arizona water,” he says. “When they use their laptops they’re using microchips from Arizona, the biggest manufacturing location for Intel. Their computers are powered by Arizona water.”
Other water users—and possibly losers—include the environment. Fred Phillips, the principal of Fred Phillips Consulting, has worked in the Colorado River Basin over the past 25 years on large-scale restoration projects, and says some restoration sites in the lower basin are already withering from the lack of river water and drought. He partnered with the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area in Arizona on a $10 million, 400-acre, 20-year wetland restoration that removed water-guzzling nonnatives such as salt cedar and Phragmites and replaced them with native mesquite, willow, and cottonwood, which provided habitat for endangered and threatened species including the yellow-billed cuckoo and Ridgway’s rail.
But that project is also in jeopardy: Farmers and the Bureau of Reclamation used to send occasional excess water (pulse flows) to the project. “With the drought, those pulse flows we depended on are pretty much gone,” Phillips says. He has started to think about designing his projects differently. “We’re not always going to have a beautiful cottonwood-willow wetland the way things are going. We need to educate ourselves on what the drought criteria are and have realistic expectations about the amount of water we have to work with and how it gets delivered.” Phillips says he has started using plants such as paloverde and mesquite instead of the traditional riparian plants he’s used in the past. He’s also using plants that would normally be found at a lower elevation than the elevation he’s working at to compensate for rising temperatures and less precipitation.
The basin’s 30 Native American tribes are also affected by the drought and water scarcity, despite the fact that many of them have senior water rights (see “One Less Hurdle to Water Sovereignty,” LAM, July). “The tribes hold rights to about 20 to 25 percent of all of the flow in the river,” says Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School. “That’s a huge amount of water that is proportionately affected by lower flows and the prospect of even less water in the future.” Some tribes have been able to lease their water rights to other users, bringing in much-needed revenue while alleviating shortages elsewhere in the basin. But other tribes are still struggling to access clean drinking water or the infrastructure that would deliver clean water to their communities. And still other tribes have not yet had their water rights quantified or secured, or federally recognized.
Castle says both state and federal agencies are committed to involving tribes and their interests in the discussions for the next set of operating guidelines. “They recognize that the tribes have not been included appropriately in the past. What that inclusion looks like moving forward is a bit unclear.” Castle says tribal leaders are continuing to meet about common interests that could be considered in the next guidelines, such as ensuring their recognition as sovereign entities with water rights and the same abilities as other water users to use or lease their water.
The bipartisan infrastructure law passed by Congress last year provides water efficiency assistance to tribes. The law includes $2.5 billion for existing tribal water rights settlements and $3.5 billion for the Indian Health Service’s Sanitation Facilities Construction Program, the entity that can build drinking water infrastructure, according to Castle. Additional funding for operations, maintenance, and technical help would be provided by legislation pending in the House and Senate.
Smallhouse says the infrastructure funding will help the agricultural community, too. “That package includes funds for improving and maintaining current infrastructure and storage systems and some funds for updating and modernizing well and pump systems, which is extremely important for water efficiency.”
Yet even with support from infrastructure funds, basin-wide cooperation will be needed as never before, say Fleck and White. Some states may still not yet realize the severity of the water shortages—incredibly, a proposal to build a new pipeline from the river in Utah is now going through the environmental review process; it will need to be approved by the federal government, however, before it can be built, according to Zachary Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. Ultimately, if states cannot come to agreement on new guidelines and allocations, the federal government can step in. In the past, Castle says, as operating agreements for the river neared finalization, the federal government often imposed a deadline. “Sometimes that’s necessary to get the states over the finish line,” Castle says.
With climate change worsening an already severe drought, White says the next decade must be one of action. “We need radical conservation across all sectors—ag needs to become dramatically more efficient, and we need to decide on the highest- and best-value crops that can be grown in the region. Industry needs to increase the pace of innovation in water recycling and reuse, and we need to become more efficient in every manufacturing process in the municipal and industrial sectors.”
Xeric landscapes should become the norm, White says—and this is an area in which landscape architects can play a big role. More important, he says, landscape architects can make an even bigger contribution at the urban scale. “[We need to] redesign and rethink our cities so we look at them as a system, not just the gray infrastructures but also the green, where we use the right water for the right purpose, including more creative utilization of stormwater for irrigation purposes.”
What is clear now is that everyone will need to adapt to far less water. “All the models are telling us there will be less precipitation in the Colorado River system, and so we really just have to plan for that,” Smallhouse says. “We have to plan for the worst-case scenario, and pretty much everybody has accepted the fact that it may be a long time until we see the river as it was at one time.”
Lisa Owens Viani is a frequent contributor to LAM who lives in Sonoma County, California, and often writes about water issues.