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Federal officials declared the first-ever Colorado River water shortage on Monday, a sign of critically low water supplies across a system serving seven western states and Mexico.
Lake Mead water level projections for January 2022 will prompt additional water cutbacks next year for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, said Tanya Trujillo, the U.S. Interior Department assistant secretary for water and science.
“This year, we’re seeing the combined effects of lower than average snowpack, hotter temperatures, and drier than average soil conditions,” Trujillo said. “And unfortunately, that trend may continue.”
Earlier this summer, Lake Mead reached its lowest level ever since the construction of Hoover Dam in the 1930s.
The lake is currently at 35% of capacity.
Arizona is expected to face the most severe cuts next year, with water delivery reductions estimated at 18%.
Nevada and Mexico will see a 7% and 5% drop in Colorado River allocations, respectively.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology that was planned for years ago, but we hoped we would never see, is here,” said Camille Touton, deputy commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Colorado River tributaries supply water to northwest New Mexico cities and farms.
The Rio Grande Basin also receives Colorado River water through the San Juan-Chama Project. Water managers use the system of diversion dams and mountain tunnels to boost Rio Grande flows.
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director at the National Audubon Society, said the trans-basin diversions show the importance of rethinking water management in an “overallocated river system.”
“It’s clear that nobody expects that if we just wait another year those reservoirs will recover,” Pitt said. “That was the old school. Climate change is water change.”
The shortage declaration is a call to confront the “sobering” future of a river system that serves 40 million people, said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“We must adapt to the new reality of a warmer, drier future,” Entsminger said. “Today’s Colorado River hydrology is not the same hydrology this basin knew a century ago.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.