Arizona and Nevada, as well as Mexico, will receive smaller water allotments from the Colorado River basin in 2023 as a result of increasingly dire drought conditions over the past two decades, US Dept. of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation officials said on Aug. 16. The drought parching much of the Western U.S. has caused water levels to drop to unprecedented levels in the river and in two of its largest reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Arizona will see its annual apportionment cut by 21%; Nevada by 8%; and Mexico, by approximately 7%, based on BuRec's latest 24-month hydrology assessments. The agency stepped in because states missed the Aug. 16 deadline to reach consensus on a basin-wide plan to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre ft. 

Seven Western states and Mexico depend on the basin for drinking water, as well as for industrial and agricultural uses. Officials from various water agencies among the affected states and tribes have tried to come to an agreement over how to reduce the amount of water they draw from the basin but have thus far been unsuccessful. 

Although some observers had expected it to take stronger action, BuRec stopped short of wresting control of water management for the entire river basin from the states. Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said during an Aug. 16 call with reporters that he has seen enough progress among the state discussions to be encouraged. 

“As dire as the situation is … I am encouraged by the spirit by which the basin states have come to the table. That work will continue,” he said. Additionally, funds from the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act, which tasks $4 billion for drought resilience projects and programs, as well as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, will help pay for projects—such as water storage, efficiency-related system improvements, recycling and desalination projects. “We’re bringing resources to the table in the form of infrastructure investments,” he said.  

Greg Walcher, a senior advisor at Dawson & Associates and a former director of Colorado’s Dept. of Natural Resources, told ENR that the BuRec announcement “sort of dodged the bullet and creates a framework of time in which the states can work with the Bureau to figure out more long- and short-term solutions.” He also served as lead negotiator in working out an agreement with California on its use of water from the Colorado River. 


Construction Industry Impacts 

Maria Lehman, president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and U.S. infrastructure market lead for GHD, told ENR that funding from the IIJA, the Inflation Reduction Act and the recently enacted CHIPS Act will provide opportunities that will be helpful in the Western water crisis, but those will challenge design and construction firms, particularly related to finding enough workers for projects and getting supplies when they are needed. 

Moreover, because the laws are so interrelated, “You’re going to have multi-agency collaboration at a higher level than you’ve ever had before,” she says. 

For management of the Colorado River basin, Lehman says BuRec must find a way to balance water needs with power needs, which will require interactions with other federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and  U.S. Dept. of Energy. “There’s no magical line that separates energy from water,” she notes. Projects—and programs—need to be thought about in a more holistic way, Lehman adds.


Avoiding ‘Catastrophic Collapse’ 

The complexity of interstate compacts and rules governing water rights and the management of water resources among the Western states can be dizzying, and navigating any changes to existing frameworks is a fraught and sometimes litigious process. But thoughtful, collaborative action needs to be taken, Beaudreau and other DOI officials said.

If waters in the reservoir plummet too low, the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams—two hydroelectric dams that provide most of the energy for millions of people in the region—would no longer be able to generate necessary power, and some states with less clout could end up with the short end of the stick.  

“To avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River system and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” said Tanya Trujillo, Interior assistant secretary for water and science.   

BuRec is studying the feasibility and safety of modifying both Glen Canyon and Hoover dams to allow water to be pumped or released from below currently identified critical levels.

Trujillo said studies are more focused on “maintaining the integrity of the existing structures” than on potentially decommissioning the dams. “We need to have the infrastructure intact and to be able to protect the water supplies for everybody that relies on it,” she said.