How are we supposed to save Lake Mead and Lake Powell now?

Eight weeks of negotiations didn’t get us anywhere near the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of additional water conservation that must happen in 2023 to keep the nation’s two largest reservoirs on life support.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees operation of the lakes, declined to offer any additional deadlines for new plans, after the seven states that receive Colorado River water were unable to agree on anything.

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It also backed away from the threat it made in June of dictating cuts if states couldn’t save enough water. For now, all actions are voluntary.

That’s a mistake.

But if these are the cards we’re dealt, what needs to happen now?

1. No more kicking the can
It’s time to admit that after several years and multiple attempts to leave more water in the lakes, all we’ve done is kick the can.

The Band-Aids keep getting bigger, and the time we’ve bought with them keeps shrinking, because we still use much more water than the Colorado River can reliably produce.

We’ve hit a crossroads: If we don’t do a lot more to shrink this imbalance in 2023, the lakes are done.

Presuming we have another runoff year like this one (which is probable, given that similar dry weather conditions are forecast), we’d need to conserve an additional 2.5 million acre-feet next year, simply to keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell from plunging any lower.

And if we fail to do so, the amount we’d need to conserve in 2024 goes up exponentially to stabilize the lakes at those same minimal levels.

In other words, if we think we can volunteer 600,000, maybe a million acre-feet next year to buy time until we can get our ducks in a row on larger amounts, we’ve already lost. Because the price only goes up from here.

2. This requires sacrifice. Say it
Every way out of this mess is going to be painful, imperfect and unpopular. It’s going to require sacrifice. From all of us – every farmer, resident, tribe, business owner, water manager and politician who calls the Colorado River basin home.

More of us need to say this, loudly and on repeat.

I know. It’s much easier these days to hunker down on our rights, or what we think we’ve been promised, or what we’re convinced we deserve, than to take the deal we don’t love but can live with, in the name of a greater good.

But that’s what needs to happen now.

Because there are no silver bullets, just a bunch of trade-offs to keep the river flowing.

3. Everyone must do their part
The Colorado River flows at Horseshoe Bend in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in Page, Arizona.
The Colorado River flows at Horseshoe Bend in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in Page, Arizona.
If cooler heads prevailed, the way forward would be relatively clear.

Most Colorado River water is used for agriculture. If we want to save the volumes of water that we’re talking about, we’re going to have to take some acreage out of production and invest in technology that can deliver water savings on the fields that remain.

That doesn’t absolve urban areas from investing more heavily in turf removal and other conservation programs, even if those actions by themselves won’t save enough water to change the lakes’ trajectory. If nothing else, it would send a strong signal to reluctant farmers that us city dwellers are willing to do our part.

The good news is the feds have earmarked more than $8 billion for these and other long-term efforts, including water recycling and desalination.

But none of that moves quickly. Few ideas are shovel-ready, and even if the feds could get money out the door fast to ramp them up, it could still take years to see significant savings.

And remember: We’ve got millions of acre-feet to find in 2023.

4. Agree to a basic framework
If we’re going to stop using this much water in a few months, the Lower Basin – that is, California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, which rely on Lake Mead – will have to shoulder more cuts than the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, which rely on Lake Powell.

Partly because they already use more water, but also because if we don’t slow the drain on Lake Mead, it doesn’t matter what we do to shore up Lake Powell. Users downstream will continue to suck it dry.

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Simple math tells us that California must contribute the most, since as of June, it was on track to consume nearly 4.6 million acre-feet of Colorado River water this year. That’s more than twice what Arizona was expected to consume this year and more than 17 times what Nevada was on track to consume. It’s also roughly what all four Upper Basin states consume in a year, on average.

That doesn’t let any other state off the hook from cuts, and yes, there may be trade-offs to get California on board, especially with how we spend a separate federal pot of $4 billion earmarked for short-term conservation, such as paying people not to use water.

But we’d be light-years ahead of where we are now if states, tribes and other water users could agree on a basic framework to guide these cuts.

5. Pressure Reclamation to do its job
I won’t pretend that any of the above will magically lead to a deal. In fact, many folks in the water world think progress is dead until Reclamation makes another credible threat of unilateral action.

But the bureau is doing the opposite.

Every action it outlined last week was either something Reclamation is already doing – such as potentially re-engineering the dams to flow water at lower lake levels – or something that could take months to work out with states voluntarily – like asking the Lower Basin to account for evaporation and system losses, nearly 1.2 million acre-feet of water that we currently pretend doesn’t exist.

No wonder some folks, including members of the U.S. House and Senate, have sent Reclamation strongly worded letters demanding real deadlines and a firm action plan.

They should keep pressuring the bureau to step in if states won’t budge.

The 40 million of us who rely on the Colorado River deserve no less.

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