The First-Ever Colorado River Water Shortage Has Been Declared. What Does That Mean For Colorado?

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Interstate 70, temporarily closed by the Grizzly Creek fire, and the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. The Grizzly Creek wildfire started a few miles up Glenwood Canyon to the east at No Name. Prevailing winds pushed the fire eastward, but smoke still hangs in the air in Glenwood.

The federal government has officially declared the first-ever water shortage in the Colorado River basin, which means mandatory water cuts in some states and Mexico in 2022

The shortage was triggered because water levels in Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border, the largest reservoir in the U.S., are projected to drop so low that it can’t meet the water and energy demands of communities in the West.

“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” Assistant U.S. Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a statement.

What does this water shortage mean for Colorado? Nothing, legally.

Lake Mead stores water for the states in the lower Colorado River basin — that’s Nevada, Arizona and California. Because Lake Mead has dropped below 1,075 feet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can mandate water cuts in Arizona and Nevada.

Climate change, drought and overuse of the Colorado River system are jeopardizing the reliability of this water, which supplies 40 million people in the West. Lake Mead hit its lowest level on record this year, as did the second-largest reservoir in the U.S. — Lake Powell

A 100-year-old water-sharing agreement means Colorado and the other states in the upper Colorado River basin — New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — are legally obligated to send a certain amount of water downstream to the lower-basin states and Mexico. 

Currently, Colorado and this group of states are complying with the water-sharing agreement. The upper basin is not legally at fault for the low levels in Lake Mead.

“When we hear a shortage declaration, that definitely causes angst,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “But I do feel like it’s a call to action both in the upper basin and the lower basin.” 

Mitchell said all of the states in the Colorado River basin are working to manage “this very precious resource,” so that federal emergency actions like this are rare.

The official shortage declaration in the lower-basin states does add pressure to renegotiations of the Colorado River’s existing management guidelines, which are set to expire in 2026.  

“It is much easier to make decisions in times of plenty,” Mitchell said. “But the decisions are more important in times like now, and they have a greater impact.”