The Colorado River salinity basin in Yuma, Ariz. / File photo by MacKenzie Elmer

San Diego and the rest of California won’t have to shoulder any mandatory water cuts from the Colorado River next year, unlike Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal government’s water manager, unveiled Tuesday how it predicts this decades-long drought will affect major reservoirs next year. The levels of those reservoirs serve as a barometer for how much water the river’s seven basin states and Mexico can receive. The Colorado River, the largest freshwater source for the western U.S. and northwestern Mexico, provides enough water for 40 million people and fuels a massive agricultural industry. 

The bureau announced for the first time that Lake Mead, the reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, was so low, due to prolonged drought fueled by a changing climate, that parts of the West would have to bank on taking less water from it in 2023. Those cuts weren’t a surprise. They were already in the stars under a 2007 drought plan to prepare for such a crisis. 

Arizona faces losing almost a quarter of its entitled Colorado River allotment come January. Nevada will shoulder another 8 percent of the cuts. And Mexico, which already took about a 5 percent cut, is slated to take on another 2 percent. 

In June, the federal government warned Colorado River basin states that if they didn’t figure out how to reduce water use by 4 million acre feet (a tremendous amount or about how much California takes from the river, its largest user) come August, the feds would tell them how. That hasn’t happened. Some states haggled over a deal, but didn’t make that deadline. But the feds didn’t throw the hammer down either or provide a new deadline for states to come up with a plan to cut water use.

Instead, the bureau said it would work on ways to find more water, like stemming evaporation out of reservoirs or capturing water that would otherwise seep through natural waterways. The agency pointed to billions in funding recently approved by Congress dedicated toward water infrastructure and conservation in the Colorado River basin. 

“We started the process to develop these tools to take action when we see it necessary for the system,” said Camille Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation. “We’re continuing to work with the basin states because we believe the solution here is one of partnership.” 

Yet the levels at Lake Mead are hovering dangerously low, almost to the point where California might feel major impacts. 

Dan Denham, deputy general manager for San Diego County Water Authority, said he wasn’t surprised by Tuesday’s announcement. That money from Congress gave the Bureau leverage to avoid what undoubtedly would be a hefty legal battle should the feds tell states how to apportion the river. 

“They just got another tool in their toolbox and it’s money,” Denham said. “We finance water projects on the backs of our ratepayers and we haven’t had much federal or state subsidy in the past couple decades. I think that’s a big deal.” 

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