A top federal water official told Congress on Tuesday that shortages on the Colorado River system have taken an even grimmer turn, with a whopping 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of reduction in water use needed by 2023 just to keep Lake Mead functioning and physically capable of delivering drinking water, irrigation and power to millions of people.

Levels at the reservoir have dropped to an all-time low of 28% of capacity, with no relief in sight, said Camille Touton, Bureau of Reclamation commissioner who testified early Tuesday to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“There is so much to this that is unprecedented,” Touton said. “But unprecedented is now the reality and the normal in which Reclamation must manage our system, for warmer, drier weather is what we are facing.”

Touton said accelerating climate change — including hotter temperatures leading to earlier and less snowfall, drier soil and other conditions — have created declines in reclamation systems never seen before. She said the new reality applies to every river basin they manage, but the Colorado River is the largest and most urgent focus.

Nearly 25 million residents and farmers in the Coachella and Imperial valleys, and residents of major cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and others rely on the lower Colorado River basin system.

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She issued a veiled warning to Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District and other districts in the Golden State, Arizona and Nevada that rely on Lake Mead, urging them to complete another major voluntary reduction agreement by mid-August.

“Between 2 and 4 million acre-feet is needed just to protect critical levels in 2023. It is within our authorities to act unilaterally to protect the system. But today we are pursuing a path of partnership with states and tribes … that has worked for a century.”

A Nevada official who testified urged agricultural districts with the largest rights to river water to make cuts, as his state already has, before they all face unthinkable consequences.

“What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating, and the moment of reckoning is near,” said John Entsminger, general manager of of Southern Nevada Water Authority. “We are 150 feet (of elevation in Lake Mead) from 25 million Americans losing access to Colorado River water.”

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‘Sophie’s choice’

A key official with the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds legal rights to 70% of California’s water from the river, or 3.1 million acre-feet, responded in an interview with The Desert Sun, part of the USA TODAY Network, that the district and its users recognize the “dramatic” reductions needed to sustain the reservoir, but said the problems at the Salton Sea, California’s largest inland water body, must also be addressed.

“We’re willing to be part of the solution, but we have other problems that need to be solved, chief among them the Salton Sea,” said IID Director J.B. Hamby, who also is on the Colorado River Board of California.

He said the district will again seek binding guarantees from the federal and state government to help with the fast-drying Salton Sea before agreeing to reductions to preserve Lake Mead.

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Hamby said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, California officials and the district face a “Sophie’s choice” between saving Lake Mead or saving the rapidly drying Salton Sea, which depends on Lake Mead runoff from farmers.

“You’ve got two lakes, you can’t save them both,” Hamby said. “So the question is, if IID is asked to do more to save Lake Mead, then the Salton Sea is going to be further impacted, and the Salton Sea needs to be taken care of, which is why we need further commitment from the state and and federal government to help.”

IID tried a similar strategy in 2019 that ultimately failed, and was left out of a multi-party drought contingency plan, over which it unsuccessfully sued. But with even higher stakes now, and commitments by both President Biden’s and Gov. Newsom’s administrations to fund major environmental projects, they might have leverage this time.

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Closed-door talks, high crop prices

The marina at Callville Bay has had to be moved repeatedly as the level of Lake Mead has dropped. Photo taken on May 23 near the marina’s administration building, where the water level stood when the reservoir was nearly full in 2000.

The public remarks echo current furious, behind-closed-doors wrangling between the three states over how to address the mounting crisis.

California holds by far the largest and oldest rights to the river water, 4.4 million acre-feet, and so far has been spared mandatory cuts that Nevada and Arizona are facing. Arizona is entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet, but like Nevada and other “junior” rights holders has agreed to previous reductions when the reservoir sinks below certain trigger points.

The Central Arizona Project, which supplies major portions of the supply used by Phoenix, Tucson and many farmers, could also lose its supply under a 1968 congressional act that gave officials permission to build the complicated water conveyance project, in exchange for “subordinating” their water rights to those held by California.

Senior Reclamation officials and representatives from the three states met last Friday in San Diego, and will likely talk again at a Boulder, Colorado conference later this week, and again over the weekend.

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Tempers have flared, one senior official said, with urban districts from other states on Friday angrily demanding California, particularly its agricultural water districts, cede supply.

Colby Pelligrino, deputy general manager of resources at Southern Nevada Water Authority, shouted and yelled curses at California officials.  They responded by demanding Arizona and Nevada present actual numbers showing amounts they’re willing to cut.

Cutting supplies is especially tough in a year in which farmers are obtaining banner prices for wheat, alfalfa and other crops, caused by widespread domestic drought, and shortages worldwide created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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In Imperial County, farmers are on track to actually take 3% more water than they’re entitled to this year, although IID’s board of directors likely will pass a mid-year “equitable distribution plan” within two weeks that sets caps and could rein in the usage for this year.

In the Coachella Valley, CVWD actually has increases in Colorado River supply written into its state-required groundwater sustainability management plan over the next two decades, including providing water for multiple new surf wave park developments and a Disney desert “beachfront” destination.

Three Coachella Valley districts have had the highest per capita water use in the state, though officials point to the area’s high heat as an unavoidable factor.

Both CVWD and IID, along with the Palo Verde Irrigation District in Blythe, hold the oldest rights to Colorado River water. IID alone holds rights to about 70% of the state’s supply from the river, though it is paid to transfer substantial amounts to CVWD, greater Los Angeles and San Diego.

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CVWD Director Peter Nelson, who also leads the Colorado River Board of California, did not respond to a request for comment.

Hamby, who also is on the board, declined to comment on specifics other than stressing that the district and Imperial Valley growers recognize the gravity of the drought and are willing to do their part. But he said the Salton Sea, which relies on runoff from Lake Mead imports to area farmers, must also be addressed.

IID was willing to sign a drought contingency plan adopted by the rest of the Lower Basin in 2019, but backed away and sued, unsuccessfully, because the federal government would not guarantee substantial aid to fix mounting problems at the Salton Sea.

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The sea is drying even more rapidly now, after a joint agreement that began diverting Colorado River water to cities and suburbs and away from rural IID farm lands in 2018.

That has eliminated critical habitat once used by fish and millions of birds that fed on them, and is exposing fertilizer, pesticide and military chemical residue on widening lakeshore owned by the federal government, IID and others that can be kicked up in harmful dust on windy days.

In response to a potential new round of draconian reductions that federal officials might seek, Hamby said IID will pursue a binding memorandum of understanding on the Salton Sea that would need to be hammered out between the feds, the state and the district first.

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The district wants to be released from liability for any potential harm from the dust, loss of species and other harmful impacts, and wants major infusions of cash to complete wetland habitats along the edge and furrowing projects to hold down the dust.

“Overall, there’s a recognition of the bad problems at Lake Mead,” said Hamby of talks he’s had with area growers and the county Fam Bureau this week. “There’s an appreciation of the willingness from Reclamation not to go straight to unilateral action, but work with folks, and an acknowledgement from many in Imperial County that it’s important to be part of the solution, otherwise we’re all going to be at dead pool (with no water) irrespective of our rights. But our rights are very precious, and we want to and will preserve and defend them.”

Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun, and co-authors USA Today’s Climate Point newsletter. She can be reached at jwilson@gannett.com or @janetwilson66 on Twitter.

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