Federal Water Shortage Limits Loom Over Colorado River And All Who Depend On It The government is expected to issue its first water shortage declaration for the river, which supplies more than 40 million people. That will mean hardships for farms, recreation and Indian tribes.

Amid A Megadrought, Federal Water Shortage Limits Loom For The Colorado River

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The Colorado River is tapped out. It supplies 40 million people in the southwest, but a prolonged warming and drying trend has left the nation's two largest reservoirs at record lows. For the first time, a shortage will be declared by the federal government. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC traveled the 1,400 miles of the river to get a sense of how those who rely on it are coping.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: The river starts on Colorado's Western Slope, where father and son Wayne and Brackett Pollard run cattle. Up on a sagebrush-covered hillside. We look down into the Rifle Valley, where the men use the river's water to grow hay.

BRACKETT POLLARD: Typically, this would be high water. And it hasn't really come up at all.

RUNYON: They list off all the superlatives that come with life in the West this year - driest, hottest, lowest, worst.

B POLLARD: Last year was considerably dry, maybe the driest we'd seen. And now we're looking at even drier.

WAYNE POLLARD: Our springs are starting to dry up up on the mountain and everywhere.

RUNYON: This dry spell comes with the usual lack of rain and snow and the relentless sun. And now a hot wind has arrived. Brackett says it's like someone is pointing a giant hairdryer at his pastures.

B POLLARD: It's just, like, sucking the moisture out even more so.

RUNYON: Nearly all of the Upper Colorado River Basin is experiencing severe drought or worse. Tributaries are running low and hot. And without enough feed, the region's ranchers are looking to sell. The Pollards plan to offload about half of their cows over the next few months.

B POLLARD: You're looking at a serious loss of equity in really just rural America, in the rural West.

SHERI FACINELLI: So the first couple miles is going to be really choppy. So hold on.

RUNYON: About 250 miles downstream, the river becomes a massive reservoir, Lake Powell, where Sheri Facinelli and husband Randy Redford are vacationing. The reservoir fills Glen Canyon, a maze of red rock on the Colorado Plateau. The lake is headed toward its lowest point since it was built. Facinelli veers their speedboat into a side canyon.

FACINELLI: You know, places where you voted for 20 years and gone flying over, all of a sudden, now there's big islands and rocks.

RUNYON: A stark, white bathtub ring on the brick-colored walls looms over us. The record-low level means its dam is generating less hydroelectric power. And it makes for a hair-raising boat ride.

FACINELLI: Plus, when the canyons get narrower, then you got to worry about other traffic more. So it's a little more nerve-wracking (laughter).

RUNYON: An estimated 4 1/2 million people visited in 2019, spending more than $420 million. But this year, several paved boat ramps no longer reach the water.

FACINELLI: So you've got the same number of visitors using fewer launch ramps. So you're going to have longer lines, shorter tempers.


RUNYON: Further downstream in a Las Vegas gated community, the Colorado River's water spurts out of a sprinkler and onto manicured grass, catching the eye of Devyn Choltko, water waste investigator.

DEVYN CHOLTKO: There's too much water leaving the property at the moment. So we're going to get out of the car, throw our lights on and document the spray and flow violation - is what we call it.

RUNYON: Choltko works for the Las Vegas Valley Water District. She pulls out her phone to take a video of the offending sprinklers.

CHOLTKO: So water waste investigator 9393. It is Tuesday, June 15 at 8:07.

RUNYON: Grass like this recently got a death sentence. This year, Nevada declared so-called nonfunctional turf illegal, lawns that are only ornamental. Choltko's agency projects that nearly 4,000 acres of turf in the Las Vegas Valley will be ripped out over the next five years. Las Vegas already restricts lawns in new developments and pays homeowners to replace their yards.

CHOLTKO: Unfortunately, we are in a desert. And grass is one of those high water users.

RUNYON: But the Las Vegas area has kept growing during the drought, adding 315,000 people in the last decade alone. As the river keeps shrinking, demands have to shrink, too. Otherwise, the whole system gets drained. Conserving now means less pain down the line, Choltko says,

CHOLTKO: So all of these restrictions have allowed us as a community to keep populating. I mean, the population isn't going anywhere, you know? So we have to kind of accommodate to that.

RUNYON: The coming shortage declaration means another round of steep cuts to water supplies, falling the hardest on Arizona farmers. If reservoirs keep dropping, further reductions are coming to Nevada, California and Mexico.

JORDAN JOAQUIN: This is - used to be the riverbed.

RUNYON: Near the river's end. Jordan Joaquin, president of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, stands on its banks, looking out on what used to be the start of the river's expansive delta, now just a narrow channel.

JOAQUIN: And so where we're standing today, if this was to be water, this would be all covered with shrubbery, willows, cottonwood, as well.

RUNYON: Not far upstream, water is drawn off to serve customers in Los Angeles and Phoenix and to irrigate crops, including local ones, says tribal council member Charles Escalanti.

CHARLES ESCALANTI: So that's why I always tease everybody when they're from back east. I'm like, when you're eating a salad in December, thank God because this is where it's coming from.

RUNYON: The tribe's share of the Colorado is part of a century-long list of legal agreements among those who use it. But Joaquin says in the past, tribes were largely excluded.

JOAQUIN: when tribes were consulted, if that's what they called it, it's at the very end. Decisions were already made.

RUNYON: The entire watershed is gearing up for a new round of policy negotiations. Perennial questions are being made more urgent. Can the watershed adapt to climate change? How will everyone get by with less? And Joaquin says, how can river management be made more inclusive?

JOAQUIN: Water is very important to us. You know, water is sacred to us. So the most meaningful thing is to be part of the negotiation at the table - not the back table, no the side table but at the table of discussion.

RUNYON: Because the answers to those questions will shape life in the West for everyone who depends on the Colorado River for decades to come. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon.


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