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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

As Water Shortage Risk Increases, Federal Officials Add Pressure To Colorado River Talks

Luke Runyon
Shortages along the Colorado River are tied to the level of Lake Mead. If the reservoir dips below 1,075 feet the U.S. Secretary of the Interior can declare an official shortage.

The federal agency that oversees water in the West says southwestern states are facing an increasing risk of water shortages. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is now adding pressure to stalled talks over the Colorado River’s future.

Without action from states that rely on the river, there’s a 52 percent chance the Colorado River will be in an official shortage in 2020, according to figures compiled last month. Arizona and Nevada would be among the first to take cutbacks during a shortage. An extended drought and chronic overuse have sapped the river’s largest reservoirs.

A shortage declaration is tied to the level of Lake Mead, the largest human-made reservoir in the country. It’s part of a system that provides water to about 40 million people in some of the country’s most rapidly expanding metro areas, like Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego.

In a statement, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said the watershed’s biggest water users can’t wait for a crisis to take action. She said water managers in the seven states that draw from the river need to come up with plans to voluntarily cut back on water use.

"We all — states, tribes, water districts, non-governmental organizations — have an obligation and responsibility to work together to meet the needs of over 40 million people who depend on reliable water and power from the Colorado River,” Burman said. “I’m calling on the Colorado River Basin states to put real — and effective — drought contingency plans in place before the end of this year."

The statement comes a few weeks after a dust up between the pilloried Central Arizona Water Conservancy District and the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico broke into the public square, causing CAWCD to apologize for its Twitter habits and its water orders, which were perceived to be manipulative.

Colorado River Basin states have been working on Drought Contingency Plans for more than two years, but negotiations had become strained in recent months because of intrastate disputes in both Arizona and California.

A Reclamation spokesperson says the agency has the authority to step in and dictate water policy to the states, but isn’t explicitly threatening that at this time.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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