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Six out of seven western states agree to Colorado River cuts

Lakes Powell (pictured) and Mead have reached historically low levels amid the worst drought in 1,200 years.
United States Bureau of Reclamation
Lakes Powell (pictured) and Mead have reached historically low levels amid the worst drought in 1,200 years.

Six out of the seven western states that depend on the Colorado River have submitted a plan to cut usage. Federal officials had set a Tuesday deadline amid historically low levels in reservoirs.

The proposal from Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming would account for evaporation in the transport of water and raise the levels at which cuts would be triggered in lakes Powell and Mead. In all, it would slash about 2 million acre-feet from the Lower Basin.

The U.S. Department of the Interior wants to reduce river usage by a third. But since a consensus wasn’t reached among the states, the federal government could still impose cuts. California, the largest river user, didn’t sign the deal and officials say they’ll release their own proposal.

Some conservation groups, however, say the proposal to cut 2 million acre-feet of water still isn’t enough.

According to the Great Basin Water Network and Living Rivers, steeper cuts are needed to stabilize the Colorado River system.

They say water managers in Arizona, Nevada and elsewhere in the West must prepare for future shortages and reduce the water seven states pull from the river by 5 million acre feet to provide a buffer for states.

Conservationists say water managers for decades have ignored the structural deficit of water in the river along with climate change and overuse. They’re also calling for new management at Glen Canyon Dam along with a moratorium on dams and diversions in the Upper Basin.

Overuse combined with the worst drought in 1,200 years is causing historically low levels in reservoirs, and state water managers have been at odds about who should bear the brunt of the cuts.

Officials fear that Glen Canyon and Hoover dams soon may not be able to produce electricity. And if levels continue to drop the reservoirs could reach what’s known as dead pool, in which water won’t be able to flow downstream.

A preliminary Interior Department report on the water cuts is expected this spring.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.