LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
About 10 years ago, there was another record-breaking drought in the western United States. And the seven states that get water from the Colorado River came up with a plan on how they'd deal with water shortages. Many hoped wet weather would return. But it hasn't. The dry conditions have actually gotten worse. And officials are working to avoid a crisis on the Colorado River. From member station KUNC, Luke Runyon reports.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Jennifer Pitt is looking out onto Lake Powell in northern Arizona. We're on an overlook full of tourists peering down on the country's second-largest reservoir and the concrete dam holding it up.
JENNIFER PITT: Yeah. You can tell that there's a river here underneath this reservoir because it has somewhat of a linear shape.
RUNYON: Pitt works on Colorado River policy for the National Audubon Society. This past year was one of the driest on record. And this spring, the reservoir only received about a third of the amount of water it does in an average year. Demands for the river's water continue to outstrip the supply, meaning both Powell and its sister reservoir, Lake Mead, continue to drop. Pitt says without changes to how they're managed, they could plummet to levels where no water can be released.
PITT: And if that happened, that would be a catastrophe for this region's economy, for all of the people who depend on the Colorado River and for all of the wildlife that depends on it, as well.
JAMES EKLUND: More is being taken out than comes into it, like your bank account. If you do that over a sustained period, you will run a deficit.
PITT: That's James Eklund. He's the Colorado representative on an interstate commission that oversees the river.
EKLUND: If you're talking about water for 40 million people and economies that are massive - fifth-largest economy in the world the Colorado River Basin represents - then that's significant.
RUNYON: Eklund's banking analogy is appropriate because the creation of a water account in Lake Powell is one piece of so-called drought contingency plans in the works now. The plan's basic premise is simple. Get states to voluntarily cut their water use now to avoid even more severe cutbacks in the future. Eric Kuhn is the former manager of the Colorado River District.
ERIC KUHN: There's clearly enough evidence that if we were to have another 2000 to 2004 kind of, you know, multi-year drought, the system is in very serious trouble.
RUNYON: Arizona has had the hardest time coming to an agreement, figuring out the details of whether cities or farmers get their water allocations cut by how much and when. But states in the river's upper basin like Colorado have had issues, too. For example, this thing called demand management.
KUHN: It's the difficult one. It's - somebody who's going to have to use less.
RUNYON: And if reductions aren't doled out fairly, Kuhn says, there's a fear they could injure urban and rural economies throughout the Southwest.
COLBY PELLEGRINO: The thing we have to remember is the basin is over 80 percent agriculture.
RUNYON: Colby Pellegrino is with the Las Vegas metro area's water utility. She says current conservation programs, like her agency's aggressive buyback of residential lawns, won't be enough to avoid a crisis.
PELLEGRINO: So we can take out all the lawns we want and still not solve the problems that climate change is going to throw at us.
RUNYON: Climate change is one factor adding pressure to get these deals done quickly - another, the federal government. The U.S. Department of the Interior wants state water managers to finish the deals before the end of the year. If they don't, there's a fear the federal government could come in and begin dictating how Western states manage their water. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.