In a first for the federal government, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Monday declared a shortage of water on the Colorado River, triggering cutbacks for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico starting in 2022.
The Colorado River's largest reservoir, Lake Mead, is now at 1,068 feet above sea level — the lowest level since its creation in the 1930s — and the Bureau of Reclamation estimates that it will drop even more by January. Mandatory water cutbacks were previously set to go into effect when the water at Lake Mead hit below 1,075 feet above sea level, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Arizona is expected to lose 512,000 acre-feet, or 18 percent of its annual allocation, while Nevada would lose 7 percent of its water allocation and New Mexico 5 percent. Under a water-sharing agreement with four other Colorado River Basin states, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico have the most junior rights, and states with more seniority — like California — will also face cuts if the reservoir continues to lose water. The cutbacks will hit farmers and ranchers the hardest.
In a statement, Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department, 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."
The Colorado River supplies drinking water to 40 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland, and is responsible for an estimated 16 million jobs, the Journal said. Years of drought, fueled by climate change, have made the ground bone dry, so runoff from the Rocky Mountains is soaked up before making it to the Colorado River. Although there have been several intense monsoons this summer in southern Utah and Arizona, the rain wasn't nearly enough to make the river rise significantly.