The Colorado River faces greater risks to its supply than at any time in recorded history, explaining why federal officials have drastic curbs in river water use next year.
“We’re facing a growing reality that water resource for agriculture, cities, industry and the ecosystem are no longer stable due to climate change,” Tanya Trujillo, Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science, told a water conference Thursday at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “We have an urgent need to act now.”
Trujillo spoke two days after Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton testified in Congress that the seven Colorado River Basin states — including Arizona — must reduce their take from the river in 2023 by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet a year. That would be out of their recent annual use of about 14 million acre-feet.
Trujillo said Interior officials have an obligation to protect their system of reservoirs, dams, pipelines and other water infrastructure to insure it will continue to operate as designed.
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“That applies to all sectors: agriculture, municipal, environmental uses, tribal partners in the basin and partners in Mexico,” Trujillo said. “We’re all invested in the future security of this basin. Our goal is to implement future strategies to stabilize and rebuild the system so we don’t constantly find ourself at the brink of crisis.”
‘Terrible runoff conditions’
Trujillo’s comments came as authorities have grappled with three consecutive years of river runoff that’s well below normal, on top of a steady decline in river flows since 2000. In 2021, the worst year of the past three, April through July runoff into Lake Powell was 26% of normal, one of the lowest on record. This year, it’s forecast at 55% of normal.
“The only new news is that we continue to see the dry hydrology that’s progressing on the river, and (we’re having) one more year of terrible runoff conditions,” Trujillo said.
This year, prior to the latest announcement from Reclamation, the Interior Department had said it would release an extra 500,000 acre-feet into Lake Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir at the Utah-Wyoming border, and that it would hold back another 480,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell that it had previously planned to release to Lake Mead. But at the time those measures were approved in early May, Interior officials announced they wouldn’t be enough to stabilize the reservoirs for long term and that additional would be needed.
This week, the Interior Department will issue a notice announcing it will take comments from water users and the general public as to what issues it should consider in overseeing efforts by the seven basin states to review the operating guidelines for river reservoirs that were last approved in 2007, Trujillo said.
“We intend to develop the next set of operating rules in an inclusive, transparent manner, based on the best science,” she said.
Will cuts be temporary?
In a brief interview with the Star following her talk, Trujillo did not directly respond to a question as to whether next year’s water use cuts will be temporary or permanent.
She said the cuts, on top of the actions the department took in May regarding Lake Powell, will “feed into the process” the agency will use to develop the new reservoir operating guidelines, which will take effect after 2026.
When it seeks public comment on reviewing the guidelines, “we will be seeking specific input on exactly the question you asked — what process we should be thinking about for the long term, what types of elements we will include,” Trujillo said. “We are going to be working on a year by year basis to administer the system.
“We’re looking for a longer term strategy to answer the question of how we manage available supplies we see in the future,” she said.
She offered one bit of good news in her Boulder talk: The Bureau of Reclamation has about $8.3 billion in funds from last year’s congressionally approved infrastructure bill to help Western states adapt to the region’s continued drying conditions.
Those conditions have grown so chronic that many scientists now say the West is in a state of long-term “aridification” instead of a shorter-term drought.
About $2.5 billion of that money can be used to help tribes deal with their water issues, Trujillo said.
The mood? ‘Glum’
Responding to an audience question about whether Upper Basin states must contribute to next year’s cutbacks, she said, “We need to be talking about action in all states, all sectors, all available ways. We will be evaluating options in all basins.”
Officials in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have blamed the Lower Basin states for much if not most of the river’s because problems Arizona, Nevada and California consume more than twice as much river water as the Upper Basin states.
“Our goal is to be working collectively with each partner in the states and Mexico on how we can help states and local communities from additional conservation,” Trujillo said.
Speaking remotely from California’s Central Valley area, Trujillo said at one point, “I’m sorry that I can’t see the mood in the room.” New Mexico water researcher and author John Fleck, who had introduced her, replied, “It’s glum.”
“This is tremendously sobering for all of us,” Trujillo said. “It’s a story none of us want to be in. We have to rely on our continuous commitment to carry out continued strategies. I have continued optimism we can get through this.”
Asked by an audience member if Interior officials have a plan in mind for how to carry out cutbacks, she replied, “The short answer is no, we don’t have any formula, prebaked or preworked.
“No doubt about it, we have to be very creative and develop a large list of potential options, provide resources and funding for assistance and programs that might work best in their respective communities. We are going to have to be doing all of that at the same time,” Trujillo said.
“We are likely to be in situations doing things we never had to do before. We’re going to have to have guts to do these things.”
Contact Tony Davis at 520-349-0350 or email@example.com. Follow Davis on Twitter@tonydavis987.