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Arizona and Nevada face another round of water cuts as drought hammers Colorado River water levels

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Arizona and Nevada will be hit with another round of cuts to their water supply, as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Tuesday that the ongoing drought continues to threaten water levels of the Colorado River and, by extension, impact communities across the West.

The announcement comes as western portions of the U.S. have already had to take a series of rare and even unprecedented steps to ration water to large parts of the country. Water levels in Nevada’s Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, hit historic lows in June.

Tuesday’s announcement included designating Lake Mead to operate in a Tier-2a shortage, which increases water restrictions on Arizona, Nevada and parts of Mexico. It is the first time the lake has been pushed to that designation.

The new regulations are based on federal government projections of reservoir water levels over the next 24 months and will take effect in January 2023.

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“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of Interior, said in a statement. “In order 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,” she added. 

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Water rights work based on negotiated agreements on how much water a particular state or country can draw from a body such as Lake Mead. The Colorado River provides water to seven states and Mexico, as stipulated in a 2019 agreement that outlines the river’s water administration amid the ongoing historic drought exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

Based on that agreement, Arizona and Nevada face the steepest cuts. In Tier-2a, Arizona will forfeit an additional 80,000 acre feet of water from Lake Mead, taking water away from cities and tribes, in addition to the state’s agriculture sector which was already hit by a previous round of cuts.

The new restrictions come as the seven states that rely on the Colorado River system missed a deadline mandated by the Bureau of Reclamation to come up with a plan to conserve at least 15% more water on top of preexisting restrictions.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced a number of ways they hope to help “meet this increased conservation need” through administrative actions, investments and support.  The bureau did not specifically say what those actions and investments are or how they will be implemented.

Water levels of Lake Mead are expected to continue to drop, and restrictions are expected to continue to mount. 

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The restrictions, on top of the additional aspirations by the bureau, have led to some tension between the parties involved, most notably from Arizona, which continues to bear the brunt of the water cuts.

“Where we’re doing the lion’s share, California is doing zip, and Mexico is doing some of it, but not very much,” said Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers water to more than 80% of the state’s population. “Doing more for us is an extremely heavy lift and we can’t do it without other folks doing the equivalent.”

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