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Day 'We Hoped We'd Never See' Dawns On Colorado River

Farms in Arizona, like this one in Gilbert, face the biggest cutbacks in the Colorado River water allotment reductions announced Monday.
Associated Press

Farms in Arizona, like this one in Gilbert, face the biggest cutbacks in the Colorado River water allotment reductions announced Monday.

Las Vegas and Arizona will see the amount of water they can take from Lake Mead fall, after the first water shortage declaration was made on the Colorado River.

Years of drought and, researchers say, overuse of the river that supplies water to more than 40 million people from Colorado to Mexico, led to the declaration by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the river. The cuts go into effect in January.

“The announcement is a recognition that the hydrology that was planned for years ago — but we hoped we would never see — is here,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told State of Nevada the next declaration could be as early as 2023 if more isn't done to conserve and use the water more carefully.

But for now, Southern Nevada will weather this first declaration well thanks to years of conservation measures.

"Our community has been so successful, and so ahead of the curve in urban water conservation," he said, "what it really means for us is we will have less extra water next year."

While Nevada's allotment of Colorado River water was reduced by 7%, the state already uses less than its new, lower limit.

"Our basic legal entitlement to the river is 300,000 acre-feet per year," Entsminger said. "What this shortage declaration does is take our legal entitlement down to 279,000 acre-feet per year, but last year, we used 256,000 acre-feet."

East across the river in Arizona, the Central Arizona Project, the state's largest water provider, will reduce flows to the agricultural interests it serves.

"It is definitely a serious situation. It is a  painful reduction," said Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, also knows as CAP. "We would've hoped that it hadn't come as soon as it did, starting in 2022, and that we might have another year or two."

The farmers who face the cuts will likely reduce their acreage and try to pull more water from wells, but "there's not enough groundwater capacity to replace all of the surface water that will be lost," Cooke said.

He said the stress on the river and growing urban population would one day cause agriculture to "phase out," but "that it would happen over a much longer period of time."

He said it's "going to be a difficult thing" for many farmers who have relied on CAP water for decades.

Cooke said he draws optimism from the increased focus on conservation and dialogue among Colorado River states.

"If you don't have hope in this business, you might as well go find something else to do," he said, "because it's a work that never ends."

The head of a grassroots water-conservation group worries that this week’s shortage declaration is a warning that could fall on deaf ears as the Las Vegas Valley continues its rapid growth.

Kyle Roerink said a measure being considered in Congress to allow the sale and eventual development of more than 40,000 acres of federal land in the Las Vegas Valley could be a time bomb: bringing hundreds of thousands of new residents with no guarantee there will always be water for them.

“When you look at those areas that would be targeted for development south of the Las Vegas Valley, there's no groundwater there,” he said. “What are the margins of error that we are willing to live with in Southern Nevada as it relates to water 50 years out?“

Roerink, who wrote an essay about the issue for the Review-Journal, said, “Conservation should also imply conservative decision-making."

John Entsminger, general manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority;  Ted Cooke, general manager, Central Arizona Project;  Kyle Roerink, executive director, Great Basin Water Network; Alex Hager, Colorado River reporter, KUNC

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.