Federal officials: Colorado River Basin reservoirs will not reach critically low levels—for now

After facing dangerously dwindling water supplies in the Colorado River Basin, federal officials say that the worst has been staved off—at least for now. The Colorado River Basin provides water to 40 million people in seven states, including New Mexico. New Mexico’s share of the Colorado River comes from the San Juan and Animas rivers […]

Federal officials: Colorado River Basin reservoirs will not reach critically low levels—for now

After facing dangerously dwindling water supplies in the Colorado River Basin, federal officials say that the worst has been staved off—at least for now.

The Colorado River Basin provides water to 40 million people in seven states, including New Mexico. New Mexico’s share of the Colorado River comes from the San Juan and Animas rivers in San Juan County. A portion of that water is diverted through a series of dams and tunnels to the Rio Grande Basin. 

Upper basin states like New Mexico are required to deliver a certain amount of water to the lower basin states. This is measured at Lake Powell gauge. Lake Powell was created when the Glen Canyon Dam was constructed.

As the U.S. Department of the Interior announced the release of a final supplemental environmental impact statement for near-term operations of the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams on Tuesday, officials who spoke during a press conference reflected on the progress that has been made, spoke about current conditions and outlined future actions.

“With this significant milestone, we can confidently declare that the Biden-Harris administration has staved off the immediate possibility of the Colorado River systems reservoirs from falling to critically low elevation that would threaten water delivery and power production,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said.

Interior Acting Deputy Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis described the release of the final supplemental environmental impact statement as a big deal, not just for people in the Department of the Interior who have been “working day in and day out to bring the Colorado River Basin back from the brink of disaster,” but also for the communities that rely on the river.

Looking forward, Daniel-Davis said a process is underway to develop the “next iteration of guidelines and strategies governing the Colorado River.” Those guidelines will go into effect in 2027. 

“We are committed to pursuing a collaborative consensus-based approach to ensure that any action from the department is done with as much consensus as possible,” she said.

At the same time, she acknowledged the friction between states, especially between upper and lower basin states.

“I want to be clear, we are not expecting every single issue to be smoothed out between the upper and lower basins tomorrow,” Daniel-Davis said.

But, she said, everyone is after the same thing: a basin-wide solution.

She said that the Department of the Interior will begin drafting the environmental impact statement for the post-2026 guidelines this month.

Touton described the ongoing drought in the western United States as one of the most significant issues facing the country. This drought is caused by climate change and has also been referred to as aridification. The aridification resulted in what Touton described as critically-low reservoir levels in the Colorado Basin, which have put strains on people and businesses.

Related: Scientists say dire climate change scenarios should be taken into account in Colorado River Basin water management

“Over the last few years, we have seen how these climate impacts are changing the very landscape of the Colorado River,” Touton said.

She said that after visiting the Hoover Dam in 2022 she appeared before the U.S. Congress to call for immediate efforts to conserve water.

Back then, Touton threatened the Colorado River Basin states with federal action should they fail to prepare plans to curb water usage.

Today, reservoir levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell are higher than they were in 2022 when officials were concerned dropping water levels would imperil the infrastructure and prevent the generation of electricity.

Many of the steps taken to reduce the dropping levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell primarily impacted the lower basin states and many of the steps outlined in the final supplemental environmental impact statement—which totals more than 1,000 pages—are also focused on the lower basin. For example, the Department of the Interior also announced agreements with three water entities in California to conserve nearly 400,000 acre-feet of water.

The supplemental environmental impact statement will result in at least 3 million acre-feet of conservation through 2026.

Touton said the supplemental environmental impact statement released Tuesday “has given us some breathing room to focus on the long term.”

But climate change will continue to create challenges along the Colorado River Basin.

Touton said the west has seen good precipitation both in the form of rain and snow, with precipitation during this water year currently at 97 percent of average and snowpack at 99 percent of average. The water year began on Oct. 1.

Compared to last year, Touton said the water levels in Lake Powell are 44 feet higher and, in Lake Mead, water levels are 29 feet higher.

“However, we’re still dealing with low reservoir conditions,” she said. “Lake Powell is 34 percent full and Lake Mead 37 percent full.”

The federal government is now looking at ways to manage the water in the Colorado River Basin going forward and will begin preparing a plan for post-2026 management this year.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Michael Brain said that as the federal agencies look toward 2026 and beyond, they are also “laser-focused” on drought mitigation efforts in other river basins, including the Rio Grande.

Every Thursday, get the latest environment news from New Mexico in your email. Sign up here!

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Both Republicans and Democrats skeptical of guv’s proposals for special session

Both Republicans and Democrats skeptical of guv’s proposals for special session

A representative from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office outlined on Thursday the bills the governor’s office will back during the upcoming special session, but…
Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

By Justin Horwath, New Mexico In Dept Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto is running for a fourth term despite the state Democratic Party’s decision to censure…
AG announces legislative priorities for upcoming special session

AG announces legislative priorities for upcoming special session

Attorney General Raúl Torrez announced on Thursday his legislative priorities for July’s special legislative session, including the creation of a crime victim’s unit to…
PNM seeks rate increase

PNM seeks rate increase

Customers of New Mexico’s largest electric utility may pay more for energy in the future. The Public Service Company of New Mexico filed an…
DOE announces funding to help bring technologies to market

DOE announces funding to help bring technologies to market

National laboratories across the country, including Sandia National Laboratories, will use millions of dollars in federal funding to spur the deployment of projects related…
LANL plans to release highly radioactive tritium to prevent explosions. Will it just release danger in the air?

LANL plans to release highly radioactive tritium to prevent explosions. Will it just release danger in the air?

By Alicia Inez Guzmán, Searchlight New Mexico Last fall, the international community rose up in defense of the Pacific Ocean. Seafood and salt purveyors,…
Stansbury outlines funding secured for early childhood and youth services programs

Stansbury outlines funding secured for early childhood and youth services programs

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury secured $8.3 million for childhood development and youth services in the 1st congressional district through federal community project funding. Stansbury,…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf answered questions about the safety of human milk formula and mifepristone on Wednesday. Sen. Martin…
Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Amy Maxmen, KFF Health News Four years after hospitals in New York City overflowed with covid-19 patients, emergency physician Sonya Stokes remains shaken by…
Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Friday $10 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act was awarded to six tribal nations and…
Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Texas-based Christian group trying to restrict access to abortion medication on Thursday. The case, FDA v. the…
How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

In the month of March 2024 alone, 1,650 clinician-provided abortions took place in New Mexico, according to the reproductive research organization, the Guttmacher Institute.…
Many Democrats endorsed by reproductive rights group won primaries

Many Democrats endorsed by reproductive rights group won primaries

With nearly 53 percent of the precincts reporting as of 11 p.m. Tuesday, most of the legislative candidates endorsed by Planned Parenthood Votes New…
New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

Food insecurity is on the rise as state benefits have decreased and the future of federal benefits have an uncertain future.  Sonya Warwick, director…
Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Texas-based Christian group trying to restrict access to abortion medication on Thursday. The case, FDA v. the…
How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

In the month of March 2024 alone, 1,650 clinician-provided abortions took place in New Mexico, according to the reproductive research organization, the Guttmacher Institute.…
Republican Herrell signs onto what critics call anti-transgender message

Republican Herrell signs onto what critics call anti-transgender message

Republican candidate Yvette Herrell, who is running against Democrat Rep. Gabe Vasquez for New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District seat, committed herself to a message…
Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

President Joe Biden leads former president Donald Trump in the race for New Mexico’s five electoral seats, according to a poll commissioned by NM…
Democrats announce spending on CD2 race

Democrats announce spending on CD2 race

The Democratic National Committee announced on Monday that it will spend $70,000 for organizing staff to aid U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez, the Democrat trying…
Heinrich leads U.S. Senate race as general election campaigning starts

Heinrich leads U.S. Senate race as general election campaigning starts

Incumbent U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich starts the general election for his second reelection campaign ahead by seven points over his Republican challenger. According to…
Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

President Joe Biden leads former president Donald Trump in the race for New Mexico’s five electoral seats, according to a poll commissioned by NM…
New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

Food insecurity is on the rise as state benefits have decreased and the future of federal benefits have an uncertain future.  Sonya Warwick, director…

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report