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Unprecedented Colorado River Water Shortage Could Be Declared in 2020

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Lake Mead as seen from the Hoover Dam with a "bathtub ring" showing the water level. Alex Proimos / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After years of unrelenting drought, federal forecasters reported there are better-than-even odds that the nation's largest reservoir will decline into shortage conditions by 2020, forcing Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to reduce their Colorado River water use.

Millions of U.S. residents and farmers are served by the Lake Mead reservoir that's supplied by the Colorado. However, water levels have dropped consistently after years of back-to-back drought. The reservoir is considered full at 1,220 feet above sea level, which has not been seen since 1983.


If the lake's surface elevation falls below 1,075 feet in January of any given year, it would trigger the first-ever federal shortage declaration. Worryingly, the latest projections from the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation show there's a 52 percent chance that could happen in two years.

Once a shortage is declared, Arizona's annual water allocation from the Colorado River would be cut by 11 percent. Nevada would face a 4 percent reduction and Mexico will see a 3 percent cut.

As Arizona public radio station KNAU noted, "A shortage declaration is unprecedented."

Marlon Duke of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation explained that 19 years of drought have depleted water supplies.

"This is the worst drought in at least the last 100 years of our recorded history, and as we look back further than that, we can see signs that this one of the worst droughts probably the last 1,200 years of the paleo-record," Duke told KNAU.

If the water level drops even further, it could prompt cuts for other states. Unfortunately, the chances of shortfall rise even higher in the following years, with 64 percent in 2021 and 68 percent in 2022, the bureau projected.

Last year, the U.S. and Mexico agreed on a new strategy that would help conserve water. However, that agreement will only go into effect if Arizona, California and Nevada finalize their drought contingency plan.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman issued a strong call for action as another dry year in the Colorado River basin looms.

"We need action and we need it now. We can't afford to wait for a crisis before we implement drought contingency plans," said Burman in a statement. "We all—states, tribes, water districts, non-governmental organizations—have an obligation and responsibility to work together to meet the needs of over 40 million people who depend on reliable water and power from the Colorado River. I'm calling on the Colorado River basin states to put real—and effective—drought contingency plans in place before the end of this year."

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