Opinion | The Colorado River crisis means Southwestern states must conserve more

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After 22 straight years of drought, the Colorado River is no stranger to crisis. But even by its standards, the outlook this summer is bleak. The nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are nearly three-quarters empty. Satellite images show the river’s topography has changed dramatically since 2017, and scenes on the ground are no less shocking: stranded houseboats, dead plants and cracked lake beds.

None of this should be a surprise. Scientists have warned for years that drought, fueled by climate change, and consistent overuse of the waterway would result in dangerous lows. This has devastating implications for the seven states and 30 tribes that rely on the river — and not just for water. Hundreds of hydropower dams in the river basin generate electricity for millions of customers in the southwestern United States. Low water levels have already led to diminished production.

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It is clear drastic cuts in water use are needed — soon. Yet reaching an agreement on reductions has proved challenging. Water sharing between states is governed by a century-old compact. A 1944 treaty also requires the United States to send a certain amount of water to Mexico annually. These arrangements were based on optimistic projections of the river’s flow. With the river under strain, there simply is not enough water to distribute, according to historical quotas or even more recent guidelines.

Some cuts came into effect this month for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, per a 2019 contingency plan. But federal officials believe the system needs to conserve an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in the next year to remain operational. The Bureau of Reclamation set an Aug. 16 deadline for states and tribal nations to come to a voluntary agreement, threatening federal intervention if they failed. Though that deadline passed without a deal, negotiations are continuing.

Unilaterally imposing cuts would be politically tricky for any administration. A voluntary agreement, on the other hand, would guarantee buy-in from locals and be more likely to reflect their needs and expertise. But every day without an agreement is another in which too much water is drained. The Interior Department should prepare to step in if negotiations continue to produce nothing.

Some states and localities have already started reimagining their water usage: Las Vegas, for example, has outlawed decorative turf, cut swimming pool sizes, invested in water recycling and curbed water budgets for golf courses. More cities must follow suit, while farmers will have to improve irrigation efficiency.

The federal government has its own tools. The Interior Department could factor evaporation into water-sharing guidelines and mandate stricter conservation practices for farms receiving federally delivered water. Congress also allocated $4 billion for drought relief in the Inflation Reduction Act. This could be used to compensate people for voluntary cuts and restore drought-affected environments. The bipartisan infrastructure package, moreover, included $8.3 billion for water programs, which should be invested in making the system more efficient — and finding alternatives to the old ways of supplying water to thirsty Americans, including water recycling and desalination.

There are no simple, painless solutions. But by making some sacrifices now, parched states can avoid more difficult ones in the future — and ensure the Colorado River continues to sustain life and livelihoods across the western United States for decades to come.

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