LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — In two years — early 2026 — we will know how the federal government intends to fix the water shortage that’s gripping the desert Southwest.
But for now, officials are saying that conditions have improved to the point that a plan by California, Arizona and Nevada to reduce water use voluntarily should help keep the region on stable footing “for the next few years.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior said in a Wednesday statement that the risk of reaching critically low water elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two key reservoirs, has gone down substantially.
“We have staved off the immediate possibility of the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production,” Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in a statement.
It’s quite a change from the pressure-packed months of 2022, when both reservoirs dipped to their lowest levels since they were filled.
In May, the three states proposed to help shore up water levels by conserving at least an additional 3 million acre-feet of water through the end of 2026 in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal money.
Though the federal government needs to finish its regulatory process, Wednesday’s announcement indicates it is poised to officially accept that plan, said JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California and a board member at the Imperial Irrigation District, the largest user of the river’s water.
Not everyone was optimistic about the plan. Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network, a conservation group that has been critical of federal management of the river, said the latest proposal fails to take a hard look at the long-term challenges facing the system.
“The brink will be back, and I fear that hoopla surrounding this document will distract from the challenges that lie ahead,” he said in a statement.
The attention turns now to more permanent agreements to save water that will go into a “Record of Decision” in 2026 that will govern the river beginning in 2027.
That two-year wait for action might seem ridiculous to some, but it has a purpose. The solution will come from a cooperative effort led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of managing the dams along the Colorado River. California, Arizona and Nevada — the states that make up the Lower Colorado River Basin — will play important roles in the agreements that determine the river’s future.
“You know, folks may look at this process and think, ‘Gee, it’s got a lot of steps, it’s going to take a little bit of time. Why so much time? Why so many steps?’ And the answer is pretty simple,” White House Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi told 8 News Now on Wednesday.
“This is a set of decisions, a strategy that impacts millions of Americans and billions of dollars of economic productivity. It’s a set of decisions, a strategy that we have to bring everybody into. So that is our focus, building an inclusive process, a transparent process, a process that values everyone and brings all of their perspectives into the conversation,” Zaidi said.
State governments, wildlife advocates, water agencies, more than a dozen tribes and even Lake Mead boaters have a voice in the decision. Already, more than 24,000 comments have been registered in the Scoping Report for Post-2026 Colorado River Reservoir Operations. More public comment will come when a draft Environmental Impact Statement is assembled before the end of next year.
That process “will put us on a steadier footing as we take on the climate crisis and its impacts on the West, especially on the water systems so many Americans depend on,” he said.
The stakes are enormously high. The federal government declared a water shortage in August 2021, and 2022 pushed Lake Mead to the lowest level since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. On July 27, 2022, Lake Mead was at 1,041.71 feet, 24 feet lower than it stands today.
Reclamation Director Camille Calimlim Touton has said there is more water promised in legal agreements than the amount of water that actually comes down the river.
Get it right, and everyone wins — likely by reducing water use. Get it wrong, and lawsuits and court decisions could delay solutions for years.
An impossible problem? Consider what has happened in Nevada. Bronson Mack, public outreach manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Southern Nevada is on track to have the lowest water use year since 1993, when the Las Vegas metro population was less than 900,000.
“Our highest water use year was 2002, when we used 325,000 acre-feet. We are on track to use less than 200,000 acre-feet this year (2023), and our population has increased by more than 750,000 people – three-quarters of a million people – since 2002. So, we are providing more people with less water than we did two decades ago,” Mack said.
That example has drawn a lot of attention to the valley’s recycling and conservation programs — particularly efforts to remove ornamental grass at homes and businesses.
“The state of Nevada has really been at the forefront of promoting recycling efforts on the water system, as well as awareness efforts to get consumers more bought into efforts that will reduce costs for consumers but also take strain and stress off the system. That’s very important,” Zaidi said.
“But the reality is this. There’s not one state alone that can take enough action — or the requisite action — to address what is a multistate problem,” he said.
“This is a challenge that impacts folks all across the Colorado River Basin. And so the most important thing that any state can do is participate robustly in the dialog and the discourse to design the solution for the short term and the long term, and that’s what we’ve seen the seven basin states including Nevada do, thanks to President Biden’s leadership and his Investing in America agenda, which has helped bring down the cost and facilitate the steps that are needed to meet this moment,” Zaidi said.
Zaidi discussed climate change’s impact on the Colorado River Basin with 8 News Now, noting that it goes beyond just hotter temperatures. Heat affects soil moisture and plant life as well. He said it’s important to see how weather phenomena like El Niño affect a range of environmental factors — not just the thermometer.
Conservationists have said climate change has reduced the amount of water in the Colorado River Basin by 10% in just the past two decades.
A wet winter brought snowpack levels in the Upper Colorado River Basin that were 160% of normal in early April of 2023. That produced runoff that helped refill reservoirs upstream, but only enough to bring Lake Mead back to 34% full and Lake Powell to 37% full.
That bought time for the long process of producing a new plan for the river, but no one is banking on wet winters to keep happening. The 2007 agreement that currently guides river operations expires at the end of 2026. It has been described as inadequate and required a number of emergency adjustments to avert water and power disasters as the drought reached its height last year.
A new Record of Decision from the federal government will guide river operations beginning in 2027.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.