Hillel Aron/Courthouse News

(CN) — As the historic drought in the U.S. West continues to push reservoir levels down to new lows, the federal government on Tuesday ordered Arizona and Nevada to cut the amount of water they draw from the Colorado River.

The West is currently experiencing its driest 23-year period on record. Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border stands at 26% capacity. Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border, stands at 27% capacity. Those levels are expected to drop even further by the end of the year.

"The prolonged drought afflicting the West is one of the most significant challenges facing our communities and our country," said Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, during an online press conference Tuesday. "The critically low reservoir conditions in the Colorado River Basin are driven primarily by climate change, including extreme heat and low precipitation."

The federal government told the Colorado River Basin states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — to come up with a plan to reduce water usage collectively by 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year. But negotiations grew acrimonious and the states failed to meet the mid-August deadline to reach a deal.

"To date, the states, collectively, have not identified actions of significant magnitude that will stabilize the system," said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner M. Camille Calimlim Touton on Tuesday.

And so the federal government has stepped in and imposed mandatory cuts. Arizona's annual water apportionment from the Colorado River will be cut by 21%, or approximately 592,000 acre-feet; Nevada's will be cut by 8%. Mexico, which also receives water from the Colorado River, will have its apportionment cut by 7%. California, which takes more than a third of the water's natural flow — more than any other state — is not being forced to take any cuts, at least not yet. That's because California enjoys more "senior" water rights compared to Arizona thanks to a series of laws and agreements made during the last century.

The cuts are triggered when reservoirs reach certain levels. Should Lake Mead's water levels sink to between 1,040 feet and 1,045 feet, California's allocation may be cut.

"While we have done a lot to protect Lake Powell and Lake Mead, more needs to be done," said Dan Bunk of the Bureau of Reclamation.

When asked by reporters of the federal government would initiate further cuts if the states remained at an impasse, federal officials tried to put an optimistic spin on things. "I am encouraged by spirt in which basin states have come to the table," said Deputy Secretary Beaudreau.

Officials also touted $12 billion on the way from the federal government, via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed in November 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act, set to be signed Tuesday. The money will go toward building water infrastructure projects, including desalination plants and water recycling projects.