Interior austerity measures to protect Colorado River System

USBR sets 2023 Operating Conditions for Lake Powell & Lake Mead

To protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System, including commitments for continued engagement with impacted states and Native American tribes, the U.S. Dept. of Interior (DOI) has announced urgent action.

In tandem, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released the Colorado River Basin August 2022 24-Month Study, setting annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2023 as current reservoir conditions are critically low.

Low precipitation, extreme heat and low flow conditions have resulted in historically low water levels in the lakes. Over the last two decades, DOI leaders have been engaging with Colorado River Basin partners on various drought response operations -- but water levels continue to decline.

“Severe drought conditions exacerbate wildfire risk and ecosystems disruption, increasing the stress on communities and our landscapes,” noted Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau.

He commented, “The Biden-Harris administration is taking an all-of-government approach to mitigating the drought, and the Interior Department is committed to using every resource available to conserve water and ensure that irrigators, Tribes and adjoining communities receive adequate assistance and support to build resilient communities and protect our water supplies.”

Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency. To avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System… water use in the Basin must be reduced,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo.

The solution to our challenges relies on … a century of collaboration & partnership in the Colorado River Basin. But as water stewards, it is our responsibility to protect the system and the millions of Americans who depend on it. Today, Reclamation starts the process on actions we can take to deliver on those responsibilities,” said USBR Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.

2023 Operations

Given the 23-year drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from both Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams – which created Lakes Powell and Mead – will be reduced again in 2023.

In the Lower Basin, reductions represent the second year of additional shortage declarations, underscoring the severity of the drought and critically low reservoir levels.

Key determinations from the August, 2022 USBR 24-Month Study include significant cuts in allocation from Lake Mead:

  • Arizona: 592,000 acre-feet (af), or 21% of the state’s annual apportionment
  • Nevada: 25,000 af, or 8% of the state’s annual apportionment
  • Mexico: 104,000 af, 7% of the country’s annual allotment

2024 Operations

US Bureau of Reclamation will begin efforts to modify low reservoir operations at Lakes Powell and Mead to be prepared to reduce releases from these reservoirs in 2024 to address continued drought and low runoff conditions in the Basin.

Reclamation will continue to implement the applicable provisions of the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and coordinated operations for both reservoirs: Minute 323 to the 1944 U.S. Mexico Water Treaty; and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans.

Recently USBR shared an update documenting the increasing risks that continue to impact Lake Powell and Lake Mead; "Protection Volume Analysis" details a range of actions that depend on future snowpack and runoff necessary to stabilize water levels at the lakes over the next four years (2023-2026).

In addition to undertaking preliminary work to develop the post-2026 strategies and operations, as several reservoir and water management decision documents expire at the end of 2026, Reclamation will immediately initiate a number of administrative actions in the Upper and Lower Basins.

The Department of Interior will continue to seek consensus support and will be based on a continued commitment to engage with partners across the Basin states, Tribes and the country of Mexico to ensure all communities that rely on the Colorado River will provide contributions toward the solutions.

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