Lower Colorado River water users anticipate dry 2024, deep federal cuts to usage
PHOENIX (CN) — Following one of the wettest winters in recent history, Arizona officials anticipate a dry 2024 as federal water usage cuts loom.
In a joint Colorado River shortage briefing held by the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project, officials analyzed current conditions in Colorado River Basin reservoirs and how they’ll change in the near future.
Thanks to a record-breaking snowpack that peaked at 174% above median levels in mid-April, the Arizona Department of Water Resources expects this year to be the second highest reservoir inflow since the beginning of the drought. Lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest reservoirs along the Colorado River that serve the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, are 24% and 29% full, at elevations of 3,525 feet and 1,049 feet, respectively. By the end of 2023, those levels are projected to be at 3,573 feet and 1,068, each nearly 30 feet higher than previously predicted.
To continue producing hydropower, the water level can’t fall below 3,490 feet in Lake Powell and 950 feet in Lake Mead.
But as experts have stressed before, one good year won’t save the West. Over the 23-year drought, the wettest years have always been followed by some of the driest. This year being the second wettest since the drought began, it’s unlikely next year will see similar levels of precipitation.
“We’ll take what we can get this year and cross our fingers that next year isn’t too dry,” said Dan Bunk, chief of the Boulder Canyon Operations Office under the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Under current reduction efforts, Arizona is saving about 895,000 acre-feet of water per year. An acre-foot of water is typically enough to serve two average households for a year. But even as more water flows into reservoirs, more cuts are in store.
“We don’t want to squander that good hydrology by just assuming the rain has saved us,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the water resources department.
Aside from next year’s precipitation levels, Buschatzke said the potential supply in the lower basin depends most notably on dam operations pursuant to a final short-term Colorado River supplemental environmental impact statement.
After basin states failed to agree on a plan to conserve 2 – 4 million acre-feet between them by the end of January, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made good on its promise to propose cuts of its own. And Arizona may see the worst of them.
Reclamation proposed three alternatives to supplement the 2007 environmental impact statement and interim guidelines, which govern operations along the Colorado River. The first alternative is to take no action, and the two action alternatives model operational changes to Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead’s Hoover Dam. Because the reservoirs are in the lower basin, only the three lower basin states would be affected. The operations would last from 2024 through 2026; Reclamation is already working on post-2026 operating guidelines.
Both action alternatives would see a total cut of 2.083 million acre-feet, with additional shortages of up to 4 million acre-feet, if needed. Action alternative one would distribute cuts between the lower basin states by priority, meaning Arizona would receive the most cuts, and California would receive the least. Under alternative two, the dam operations would remain the same, but the additional cuts would be distributed by the same percentage among the states.
Brenda Burman, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which provides water to more than 5 million people in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties via a 336-mile canal, said alternative one would leave only 1.17 million acre-feet per year for Arizona, while alternative two would give the state just over 2 million. The most severe cuts would hit tribal nations and agriculture users.
Both action alternatives would reduce the chances of reservoirs dipping below minimum elevation to produce power, known as hitting “deadpool.” Lake Powell would be 34% less likely to reach deadpool, and Lake Mead would be 7% less likely to do so. Despite relatively high levels in the reservoirs now, both action alternatives would lower the elevations during 2024 before stabilizing in 2025 and 2026.
Reclamation hasn’t indicated a preference between the action alternatives, though it’s clear both are preferred over no action. Buschatzke said Arizona is still in negotiations with Nevada and California, looking for a more desirable outcome for all three states.
The public comment period for the draft ends on May 30, after which the U.S. Department of the Interior will make a final decision if no other alternatives have been presented.