February 3, 2023

The seven U.S. states along the Colorado River – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – are facing another deadline to curb their water use amid extreme drought. They must agree on massive voluntary cuts by Tuesday or the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the Home Office, has said it will impose cuts on them.

Basin states have called on the federal government’s bluff before, but whatever happens next week will affect millions of Westerners and their livelihoods.

It’s not just about water users: the river also provides hydroelectric power to the west. But as the Colorado River’s water levels drop, it’s becoming harder and more expensive to keep energy usage at current levels.

Much of the electricity generated in the West comes from hydroelectric power. During times of drought, the cities and communities that depend on this energy typically turn to dirtier, less efficient, and more expensive sources.

That includes oil and natural gas, said Bryan Hill of the public electric utility in Page, Arizona.

“With water levels at Lake Powell reaching historic lows, we need to go to market,” Hill said. “The cost of the energy we bring to Page has at least doubled.”

He hopes the recent wet weather in the west will boost the reservoir in the spring. But there are no guarantees, said Adrienne Marshall, a hydrologist at the Colorado School of Mines.

“We don’t know how much that will help reservoirs and hydroelectric production,” she said.

If the rest of the winter gets warmer or drier, much of the mountain snow could evaporate, Marshall added. “Even if we get good drainage, we shouldn’t count on a year of wet water getting us out of a long-term mess either.”

This is exactly what some water managers are betting on when debating how best to conserve water.

“There’s still a lot of tension about how deep we need to cut now or how much we can defer,” said John Fleck of the University of New Mexico.

Hoping the mega-drought will ease in the coming years, Hill said he understands the stress. “Nobody wants to go without their water,” he said. “Water is wealth.”

And with wealth comes power. Without major compromises, Hill added, cities like Page would have a hard time keeping their lights on.

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