The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this month forecast historically low water supplies from the Colorado River in the coming months.
According to the forecast, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, man-made lakes along the Colorado River that store water supplying millions of people and vast tracts of farmland, could shrink to historic lows this year, triggering the federal government's first-ever official shortage declaration — a blow to farms across the West.
Officials say that if predictions are accurate the Level 1 shortage declaration will be issued this August, and cuts to allocations would follow in January 2022. Arizona alone would lose one-third of its supply.
Under existing guidelines, the declaration will be triggered if Lake Mead, America's largest reservoir, falls below 1,075 feet — the lowest the lake has been since it was filled in the 1930s — which models predict will happen in June 2021.
"It's looking extremely likely at this point," Patti Aaron, regional public affairs officer for the Lower Colorado River Basin, told the Capital Press Wednesday. "Basically, what we've been saying is we'd have to have a miracle May snowpack to get out of this, and that's almost impossible."
Seven Western states have interests in the Colorado River: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and California. Farmers across this region would be impacted.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River begins its journey in north-central Colorado's snowcapped mountains and snakes southwest about 1,400 miles toward the Gulf of California. The river, its tributaries and the land these waters drain are all part of the Colorado River Basin, covering 242,000 square miles of the U.S., one-twelfth of the nation's continental land area.
The Upper Colorado Region alone, according to Jennifer Erickson, public affairs officer for that region, irrigates about 3.5 million acres of farmland.
States in the Lower Basin also rely heavily on the river. Of the first 7.5 million acre-feet of mainstem water in the Lower Basin, California is entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet, Arizona to 2.8 million acre-feet and Nevada to 300,000 acre-feet.
Water policy experts say several regions of California rely on Colorado River allocations.
Imperial County farmers rely on the allocations most, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.
"The Imperial Irrigation District is the largest water user on the entire Colorado River," said Aaron, officer for the lower basin.
Although the Bureau of Reclamation wouldn't enforce cuts until next January under a shortage, state-level water departments might act sooner.
Each state's water resources department will be responsible for allocating water and making cuts as needed if a shortage is declared.
The Bureau of Reclamation also predicts Lake Mead may drop to the point that it threatens electricity generation at Hoover Dam. The dam's hydropower serves millions of customers.
According to statements, officials at state water resources departments saw drought coming and have been taking preparation measures to ensure adequate water supplies and power generation, including replacing and renovating dam turbines, creating "banks" for recycled water and constructing "straws" to draw water from farther down in the lakes.