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Arizona, Nevada and Mexico see water usage cuts as Colorado River shortage deepens


Today, federal water managers announced additional water cuts for some southwestern states that rely on the Colorado River. More than 40 million people depend on that river system for drinking water, hydroelectric power and agriculture. But historic drought has pushed the river to record lows. And after the first-ever declaration of a shortage last year, the crisis has only deepened. Here to tell us more is Alex Hager of KUNC in Greeley, Colo. Hey there.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Hi. So the government's announcement today had two parts. They gave us an update on water levels and then they announced more cuts. What are the headlines on both of those?

HAGER: Well, when it comes to water levels, the basic message is things are worse. For example, the water level in Lake Mead, which is one of the most important reservoirs on the Colorado River, it is critically low. If it keeps getting lower, it would lose the ability to generate hydropower. It could get so low that water could no longer pass through the dam. So the cuts are an effort to keep some water in the reservoir and prevent that from happening. The federal government announced that two states and Mexico are going to receive less water starting in 2023. Arizona's amount is going to be reduced by 21%, Nevada's by eight and Mexico's by 7%.

KELLY: That's not insignificant. How are the cuts expected to affect those areas?

HAGER: Yeah. You know, realistically, they are not as drastic as they might seem, especially in Arizona, where they're going to see the steepest cuts. Local water agencies are doing a lot to soften the blow. They've got enough water stored as a backup that farms and homes won't really feel those cuts for 5 to 10 years in a lot of cases. And after that, it will depend on what happens as more permanent negotiations about water get settled. It's also important to remember that these cuts were expected. Water levels have been dropping steadily for years now, and the cuts we're seeing today were actually agreed upon in 2019. They were just triggered by dropping water levels.

KELLY: Meanwhile, Alex, today was also the deadline for the seven states that use the Colorado River to come up with a plan for big reductions in their water use. Did they?

HAGER: Well, in June of this year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said states had to conserve 2 to 4 million acre feet of water, and they had just two months to sort out a plan to do that. Today was the deadline. And no, they just do not have a plan put together. The federal government had threatened to step in and force them to make big cuts if the states couldn't come up with the plan themselves. But at today's announcement, the feds didn't really seem ready to do that. They said they would keep working with states to get a plan in place, but they did not specify any new measures they might take to force conservation. And let's be clear here - the Colorado River crisis, it is not going to get solved with little cuts and reductions here and there. It is going to take big agreements and some uncomfortable sacrifices from the seven states that use the water.

KELLY: Right. I mean, just take a step back. Give us a little bit of the history. How did things get to this point?

HAGER: Yeah. The Colorado River, it serves a growing region. So you've got a lot of people trying to get a slice of that pie. But the pie itself is getting smaller. We are into over two decades of drought. It is the worst one that the region has seen in 1,800 years. You know, obviously, you're going to get some wet years, you're going to get some dry years. But this drought that we're in right now, it is so bad because it's being accelerated by climate change. It is warmer, it is drier, and there is less water to go around.

KELLY: Alex Hager of KUNC reporting from Greeley for us. Thank you, Alex.

HAGER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.