SALT LAKE CITY — Hydroelectric turbines could stop spinning. Las Vegas and Phoenix could be forced to restrict water use or growth. Farmers could stop growing some crops, leaving fields of lettuce and melons to turn to dust.
These are just some of the disastrous consequences that could occur if states, cities and farms across the American West do not agree on how to reduce the amount of water they draw from the river. Colorado.
Yet for years, seven states that depend on the river have taken more water from it than nature can replenish. Despite widespread recognition of the crisis, states have missed a deadline this week to propose major cuts that the federal government has deemed necessary.
And eventhe government failed to impose tough decisions and has refrained from imposing the cuts on its own, despite previous threats to do so.
Any unilateral action by federal officials would likely move conversations from the negotiation tables to the courtrooms and further delay action.
The river, which cascades from the Rockies to the deserts of the Southwest, 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 its sharing have been based on faulty assumptions about the amount of water available. Climate change making the region hotter and drierthis gap becomes impossible to ignore.
Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs that hold water in the Colorado River, have fallen to dangerously low levels faster than expected. Drop threatens to disrupt hydropower generation and water sent to towns and farms.
Although everyone agrees that the stakes are high, states and the US government have struggled to come to a consensus on what to do.
People were “hoping to avoid that day,” said Felicia Marcus, a former top California water official who holds the river’s greatest water right. “But now I think we can’t expect Mother Nature to bail us out next year. Now is the time to make some of those really tough decisions.
The river is also mined by Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Mexico, and certain tribes.
For years, authorities have issued warnings about the condition of the river, but also reassured people that the system would not fail. That two-part message was front and center this week, when states missed the Bureau of Reclamation’s deadline for proposing 15-30 percent reductions in their water use.
As the deadline passed on Tuesday, the potentially dramatic moment amounted to a shrug. Officials said they still believe the states will reach an agreement if given more time.
Visiting California the next day, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton repeatedly dodged questions about what might happen next. She gave no details on what the bureau’s most aggressive actions might look like, or when they might happen.
The federal government, she said, “is ready to move forward on our own.” But officials “will continue to talk to everyone about the nature of the process.”
Not everyone is happy with this approach.
“I’m asking them to at least lay out very clearly how this threat will be imposed,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority chief executive John Entsminger.
Entsminger and his counterparts in Arizona, Utah and California, as well as local officials in and around Phoenix, also repeated what has become a common refrain: They said they were gravely concerned about future of the river, but wanted to reassure their water users that the river will not stop flowing any time soon.
“It’s not a situation where people should be worried about, you know, water running out in days or weeks or even months. But it’s very clear that this whole river system is going through something that has never happened before,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s Secretary of Natural Resources.
The cuts would force tough decisions about who should live on less. Water bills could rise as states tap other sources and adopt technologies like wastewater recycling to make up the difference.
In some places, authorities have voluntarily implemented strict conservation measures, including limiting watering of lawns and pay farmers not to plant fields, even prohibiting new water connections. Climate legislation signed Tuesday by President Joe Biden provides $4 billion that could be used to pay Colorado River users to curb, but it’s unclear how it would work.
The narrowing of the river has inflamed tensions between the Rocky Mountain states and their downstream neighbors over who should shoulder the burden. It also contrasts growing cities with agricultural regions.
In Pinal County, Arizona, Kelly Anderson grows specialty crops for the flower industry and leases land from alfalfa growers whose crops feed livestock on nearby dairy farms. He expects around half the area will go unplanted next year, after farmers in the area lose all access to the river.
Although farmers use most of the water, they have less leeway to conserve it than cities, which can more easily recycle water or tap into other sources. The river is a lifeblood in places like California’s Imperial Valley, which grows vegetables like broccoli, onions and carrots. Water shortages could have ripple effects throughout the food system.
States are not the only ones around the table. Native American tribes hold some of the oldest water rights and are in a unique position in negotiations because the federal government is obligated to protect their interests.
Colorado River Indian tribes along the Arizona-California border provided water to boost Lake Mead in the past. They could be called upon again.
“Our superior rights don’t mean we can or should sit on the sidelines,” said Colorado River Indian Tribes President Amelia Flores. “We will not let this river die.”
The upper basin states – Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming – say they shouldn’t face cuts because they historically haven’t used all the water promised to them ago. a century.
They want to protect their share in anticipation of population growth and have not pursued policies that save water as much as states like Arizona and Nevada.
Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said many Rocky Mountain residents cling to the mistaken belief that their water rights are secure, that cutoffs will continue to hit their downstream neighbors, and that a wet winter could reverse the decline of the river.
“If we don’t agree on what the crisis is, we won’t have the momentum to find a solution,” he said.
Arizona, Nevada and California say they are ready to put water or cash on the table, but so far that hasn’t been enough to bring about a deal.
A growing chorus of senior officials and environmental advocates say states and the federal government are sending confusing messages highlighting the seriousness of the situation while delaying meaningful action.
James Eklund, a lawyer and former director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said the dwindling reservoirs provide an opportunity to rethink how the river is managed and incentivize conservation — if only officials would seize it.
Bureaucrats, he said, continue to think they can postpone changes. The problem is that “it doesn’t really work here because no action means we’re headed for a cliff”.
Ronayne reported from Madera, California. Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca contributed from Flagstaff, Arizona.