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Western Water: Way Foward Update

Updated: May 31

By - Tim Rosado

Water supply in the western United States is looking better this year because of a wetter-than-normal winter and spring.

For the longer-term, however, the water supply situation still seems grim, with reservoir levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell remaining near historic lows.

A proposed new multi-state plan to reduce Colorado River allocations offers some hope, however, in tandem with targeted infrastructure investments and conservation efforts of the affected states.

Colorado River Allocation Reductions

The Department of the Interior announced (May 22) an agreement among Lower Colorado River Basin states to implement further water use reductions that totals 3 million acre-feet through the end of 2026. Half of the water savings will need to be achieved by 2024.

More than 76 percent of the reductions will be compensated through Federal funding approved for this purpose in the 2021 Inflation Reduction Act, an amount likely to be about $1.2 billion. Affected states could use that money, as specified under the law, “to mitigate the impact of drought” which could mean payments to farmers to cut back on water use (and therefore farm production) or payments to communities as an incentive to scale back water use. Uncompensated reductions, estimated to be about 700,000 acre-feet of water, would be divided among California, Arizona, and Nevada.

For some perspective, the upper- and lower-level basins are each allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually under the current state water compact, which runs through 2026. Upper basin states receive water directly from the Colorado River; lower-basin state water comes from the Lake Mead reservoir.

The target reduction will be equal to about a 13% reduction for each of the three lower basin states from now through 2026.

And, after this agreement is finalized, states will have to begin work on another 20-year compact that would start in 2027. That future agreement could necessitate much more significant reductions if drought conditions persist.The specifics of how the additional near-term cuts will be achieved is not yet clear. In large part, the specifics will filter down from the central government of each state down to each locality and water consumer.

The Federal Government will stand by to impose water reductions if the states fail to reach the desired targets. In April, the Federal Government began the process of imposing new restrictions on basin states, which would have been more impactful than the reductions under the current agreement. That process will be suspended, and the Federal Government via the Interior Department will now assess and make a final decision on the lower-basin state plan.

Reservoir Levels Right Now & Projected

The Colorado River feeds into Lake Powell in Northern Arizona near the Utah border, then flows down through the Grand Canyon into Lake Mead in Arizona near the Nevada border. Lake Mead then provides the primary water needs of Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California.

Arizona gets 40% of its water from Lake Mead while Southern California gets about one-third of its needs from Lake Mead. Las Vegas, Nevada gets 90% of its drinking water from the Lake.

Lake Mead currently sits at about 30% of capacity. While water levels rose 3 feet between March and April 2023, the lake’s water level is still 5 feet below the level from a year ago. Officials project that given the current wet winter and spring, water levels could rise 33 feet by the end of this year. That’s great news, but that would still leave the reservoir way below desired levels. The hope is that drought conditions will continue to improve, but there is no expectation that this will occur.

Lake Powell currently sits at 29% of capacity. The Lake is projected to reach 37% of capacity this year. Lake Powell is important because it serves as a holding tank for downstream water needs, such as to Lake Mead, and is also important for hydroelectric power generation at the Glen Canyon Dam.

At full capacity, the two reservoirs can store about 51 million acre feet of water (MAF), with Lake Mead only slightly larger at 27 million MAF than Lake Powell at 24 MAF.

Western Water Funding and Other Infrastructure Investments

The 2021 Inflation Reduction Act (August) included $4 billion in funding for western drought response to help offset the impact to farmers in the region of voluntary/involuntary reduced water supply and use, fund water conservation projects, and finance ecosystem/habitat restoration projects for impacted rivers and inland water bodies.

The Infrastructure Act is also directing substantial funding towards western water infrastructure including, among other things, $3.2 billion to repair/replace aging infrastructure; $1.1 billion for water storage infrastructure; $1 billion for water recycling projects; $250 million for desalination projects; $200 million for watershed projects; $400 million for water conservation projects; and, $200 million for ecosystem restoration.

The Interior Department has highlighted some of the funding distributed so far including:

  • $281 million for 21 water recylcing projects expected to increase annual water capacity by 127,000 acre-feet annually;

  • Up to $233 million in water conservation funding for the Gila River Indian Community, including $83 million for a water pipeline project;

  • $173 million loan to Ventura, California towards a drought-resistant water system;

  • $73 million for infrastructure repairs on water delivery systems;

  • $71 million for 32 drought resiliency projects expanding access to water through groundwater storage, rainwater harvesting, aquifer recharge and water treatment; and,

  • $20 million in new surface and groundwater storage investments.

Interior's Bureau of Reclamation published an FY 2023 spend plan detailing this year's planned related spending through Infrastructure Act resources.


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