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USBR declares shortage on Colorado River; states fail to develop plans for deeper cuts

Blue water beneath white and pink cliffs
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday a second year of shortage on the Colorado River, with Arizona bearing the brunt of water cuts. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, shortage conditions are expected to continue for several years, but states failed to reach a deal on deeper conservation measures.

Arizona will lose almost 600 thousand acre-feet of water, or about 21 percent of its annual share of the river’s flow. Nevada will lose 8 percent and Mexico 7 percent.

That’s due to earlier agreements hammered out by Colorado River users.

Two months ago, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton directed the seven states to make plans for conserving an additional 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water. "But to date, the states collectively have not identified and adopted specific actions, of sufficient magnitude, that would stabilize the system," she says.

Touton declined to say if the federal government will impose cuts on the states, emphasizing the value of partnership.

But Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, says the threat of federal action is key to continuing the stalled discussions. "At the end of the day, the equation often is: am I better off with a deal, or am I better off with someone imposing a deal on me?"  

In a written statement, Buschatzke said, "It is unacceptable for Arizona to continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions."

Two decades of drought have reduced the Colorado River’s flow 16 percent below the 20th century average; and the river was over-allocated when it was first divided up a century ago.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plans to study the possibility of making physical modifications to Glen Canyon and Hoover dams to allow water releases at lower elevations.

Tanja Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science for the U.S. Department of the Interior, says that’s part of a “suite of options” the federal government will develop to protect the Colorado River system.

“We need to be as flexible as possible, we need to be as creative and innovative as possible, because we are truly facing unprecedented conditions in this basin,” she says.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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