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Biden administration proposes water rationing to save the Colorado River

As the Colorado River continues to shrink due to overuse and the worsening 23-year-long drought, the Biden administration has proposed a controversial and unprecedented solution. 

According to a recent report in the New York Times, in an attempt to save the river and prevent an imminent water and power catastrophe across the West, the administration suggests evenly cutting water allotments to California, Arizona, and Nevada by as much as one-quarter. This reduction in water delivery to the states has never occurred in American history.

The Colorado River supplies drinking water to 40 million Americans, irrigates 5.5 million agricultural acres, and generates electricity for millions of homes and businesses. The river’s flows have recently fallen by one-third compared to historical averages, and its two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are facing critically low water levels. 

If these levels continue to drop, the turbines that generate electricity may fail, and the water may no longer reach intake valves controlling its flow out of the reservoirs, causing the river to come to a standstill.

The Biden administration is determined to prevent this scenario, known as deadpool, but faces a political and ethical dilemma on how to distribute the required cuts. 

Preventing “deadpool” on the Colorado River reservoirs

On Tuesday, the Interior Department, which manages the river, released a draft analysis considering three options: taking no action, which would risk deadpool; making reductions based on the most senior water rights; or evenly distributing the cuts across Arizona, California, and Nevada.

According to Christopher Flavelle’s reporting in the New York Times, if the reductions were based on seniority of water rights, California would be largely spared, causing disastrous consequences for Nevada and Arizona. Deputy Secretary for the Interior Department, Tommy Beaudreau, stated that these consequences would not be allowed to happen. 

Reducing water deliveries evenly would impact Arizona’s Native American tribes and Southern California’s agriculture industry, potentially inviting lawsuits. However, Beaudreau expressed confidence that evenly allocating cuts would help achieve the department’s goals while protecting health and safety.

Beaudreau defended the government’s willingness to depart from the longstanding seniority rules regarding water rights, arguing that the impacts of climate change could not have been predicted when these rights were established decades ago. 

Until now, the federal government has primarily responded to drought by paying farmers, cities, and Native tribes to voluntarily use less water, but it seems that this approach may no longer be sufficient.

While the Interior Department would prefer states to reach an agreement among themselves, recent attempts to do so have failed. Last summer, states were given two months to agree on a plan for reducing their use of Colorado River water, but failed to reach a consensus. 

In January, six states proposed that the bulk of the cuts should come from California, which in turn suggested that Arizona should bear the brunt of the reductions. Negotiations have continued without reaching a deal.

However, two factors may increase the odds of states reaching an agreement, according to Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center. First, an unusually wet winter has temporarily reduced the scale of the cuts required to avoid deadpool. Second, the federal government’s readiness to act may push the states to come up with a better alternative solution.

As the final analysis is expected this summer, it remains to be seen how the states and the federal government will navigate the complex challenges posed by the shrinking Colorado River and the ever-present threat of climate change.

The root cause of the Colorado River crisis

The Colorado River crisis is primarily caused by a combination of factors:

  1. Overuse: The river supplies water to about 40 million people, irrigates millions of acres of farmland, and provides electricity to millions of homes and businesses. As the population in the region grows, the demand for water has increased, putting a strain on the river’s resources.
  2. Prolonged drought: The Colorado River basin has been experiencing a drought for over 23 years, which has significantly reduced the river’s flow. The drought is linked to climate change and natural climate variability, which leads to lower precipitation and higher evaporation rates in the region.
  3. Climate change: Climate change has exacerbated the drought by causing warmer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier snowmelt in the river basin. These factors have intensified the water crisis by reducing the amount of water available for human use and increasing water loss through evaporation.

Together, these factors have led to the Colorado River crisis, characterized by shrinking water resources, falling water levels in reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and increasing risks of water and power shortages in the region. 

The crisis has prompted federal and state governments to consider difficult choices regarding water allocation and management, as they grapple with the challenges posed by climate change, population growth, and competing water needs.

The logistics of managing water allotments

Managing water allotments on the Colorado River is a complex task, given the competing demands for water resources and the challenges posed by climate change and population growth. Here are some strategies the government can adopt to better manage water allotments:

  1. Negotiate interstate agreements: Encourage cooperation and negotiation among the states that rely on the Colorado River, aiming for a fair and equitable distribution of water resources that takes into account each state’s unique needs and priorities.
  2. Implement water conservation measures: Encourage and incentivize water conservation practices among agricultural, industrial, and residential users. This could include funding and supporting water-efficient irrigation systems, promoting the use of water-saving appliances and fixtures, and implementing public awareness campaigns on the importance of water conservation.
  3. Develop alternative water sources: Invest in the development of alternative water sources, such as water recycling and reuse, desalination, and stormwater capture, to reduce dependence on the Colorado River.
  4. Optimize water storage and infrastructure: Improve the management of existing water storage facilities, such as reservoirs and dams, to maximize their efficiency and minimize water loss. This may also involve investing in new infrastructure projects to enhance water storage and distribution capabilities.
  5. Protect and restore ecosystems: Preserve and rehabilitate ecosystems within the Colorado River basin to maintain their natural functions, such as water filtration, groundwater recharge, and habitat provision, which contribute to the overall health of the river system.
  6. Adapt to climate change: Incorporate climate change projections and risk assessments into water management plans to better anticipate and adapt to future changes in water availability and demand.
  7. Support research and innovation: Invest in research and development to advance new technologies and strategies for water management, conservation, and efficiency, and facilitate their adoption by water users.
  8. Improve monitoring and data collection: Enhance the monitoring of water resources, including river flows, groundwater levels, and water use, to provide accurate and timely data for decision-making and long-term planning.

By adopting a combination of these strategies, the government can better manage water allotments on the Colorado River, ensuring the sustainable and equitable use of this critical resource for current and future generations.

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