SALT LAKE CITY — The federal government will mandate water cuts to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico as Lake Powell and Lake Mead continue to decline.
At a news conference on Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that for the first time, the Colorado River will operate in a "Tier 2a" situation. Water levels are low and predictions are not for much improvement as a result of the mega-drought and a changing climate, U.S. Department of Interior officials said.
"The system is approaching a tipping point and without action, we cannot protect the system and the millions of Americans who rely on this critical resource," said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.
Work is being done to explore whether Glen Canyon Dam (Lake Powell) and Hoover Dam (Lake Mead) can be modified to release water at levels lower than "deadpool," the amount where it is no longer possible for them to generate electricity.
Arizona and Nevada face water cuts, specifics of which were not announced. Utah and other upper-Colorado River basin states have submitted water conservation plans to the federal government that are currently being negotiated, federal officials said. Tuesday's announcement spared federally mandated cuts to Utah for now.
"We need to make sure we can see additional conservation in all of the states and all of the sectors and that includes the upper-Basin states as well," said Tanya Trujillo, the assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior department.
Gene Shawcroft, the Colorado River Commissioner of Utah, argued that the cuts were appropriate given that lower-Basin states accounted for "two-thirds" of water use. Utah's water reductions come from Mother Nature, he said.
"Everyone’s going to have to live with less water. There’s no question the reductions we’ve seen over the last several years are going to cause us all to squeeze a little bit. We’re all going to have to cut back a little bit," Shawcroft said.
Environmental groups complained that the action wasn't going far enough.
"Yeah, we got some two way cuts. But two way cuts are not going to stop the freight train that’s coming at us head on," said Kyle Roerink at the Great Basin Water Network. "This is a dangerous game of chicken we’re playing here. As has been the case on the river for the past 20 years is who really believes in climate change?"
Zachary Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council said that while he supported efforts to build bypasses at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, it should have been done a long time ago.
"It’s just not enough. We should have initiated this construction study five years ago so that we were building bypasses today," he told reporters.
Utah will soon begin negotiating with other states, tribes and the federal government for shares of Colorado River water. While the state will no doubt fight for its fair share, Shawcroft acknowledged the reality of hydrology.
"This is the beginning of a new era in the state of Utah where we have got to be in a position to use a significant amount of water less than we’ve used in the past," he told reporters. "We simply cannot continue where we are."