By: - September 15, 2022 12:00 am

Colorado River water fills an irrigation canal in Maricopa, Ariz. Federal officials reduced Arizona and other states’ supply of the basin’s water. Matt York/The Associated Press

Read more Stateline coverage of how communities across the West are grappling with drought that’s worsening because of climate change.

As much of the West remains in extreme drought and reservoirs drop to historic lows, states are facing continued cuts to their water supply, either voluntarily or by direction of the federal government.

Last month, federal authorities announced that for the second year in a row, Arizona and Nevada would be limited in the amount of water they can take from the Colorado River. While the order did not include mandatory cuts to the agricultural sector or personal behavior, like limits on watering lawns, federal officials did signal that painful cuts may be required in the future.

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency,” said Assistant Interior Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo in a statement last month. “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.”

Arizona water officials lambasted the announced cuts, saying their state faces a disproportionate burden of water reductions.

California water agencies are still negotiating with federal officials over their share of the water from the 1,450-mile Colorado River. Local water officials have alluded to upcoming historic cuts to the state’s access to the water system. A deal between state and federal authorities is expected in the coming weeks. California takes in the most water from the Colorado River of any state.

Federal officials had hoped Western states would reduce their water consumption by at least 15%, but states have been reluctant to implement severe cuts. As the drought continues, reductions in water use are needed to prevent reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell from reaching “dead pool” levels, when there is not enough water to flow downstream through dams.

“Everyone agrees that we have to work together to take action to stabilize the Colorado River system,” California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot told the Los Angeles Times this month. “The status quo is simply untenable.”

In Southern California, over 6 million water consumers have faced mandatory restrictions since June, barred from watering their lawns more than once a week. Officials hope to cut the region’s water usage by between 20% and 30%. The region uses water from the Colorado River and from the State Water Project, which transports Northern California mountain water down through canals.

This month, more than 4 million Southern California residents have been banned from watering their lawns as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California conducts emergency repairs on its Colorado River pipeline.

California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has said that further statewide mandatory cuts could come this month to help conserve the state’s water supply. As California endures its third year of drought, Newsom recently released a plan to adapt to continued drought and other effects of the climate crisis, including by building new water infrastructure that helps capture and store water, as well as projects that recycle and desalinate water.

“The hots are getting a lot hotter. The dries are getting a lot drier,” Newsom said in August. “We have to adapt to that new reality, and we have to change our approach.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.