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California, Arizona and Nevada face major water cutbacks from the Colorado River

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Because of the megadrought that's gripping the southwestern United States, the federal government is cutting back how much water it delivers to California, Arizona and Nevada by a lot, about as much as Las Vegas uses in a year. It's something water managers never thought they'd have to do. Alex Hager reports on the Colorado River from member station KUNC in Greeley, Colo., and joins us now to explain what's going on. So decades ago, the U.S. built huge dams on the Colorado River specifically to store water as insurance against droughts. Why isn't that system working now?

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Well, right now, we are in a truly massive drought unlike anything we've seen in more than a thousand years. One of those giant dams, which holds back Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona, it is now lower than it's ever been, thanks to more than 20 very dry years. And water levels are still dropping. It is the nation's second-largest reservoir, and now it's reaching a crisis point. If levels drop just a little further, they will get too low to generate hydropower at the Grand Canyon Dam. That is something that's never happened before. So this move from the federal government is a scramble to avoid that. It'll add an emergency boost of water and keep the turbines running. So water managers are going to release a lot less water from Lake Powell to keep those turbines running and to keep supplying electricity to about 5 million people.

SCHMITZ: And help us - give us a sense of how dire the drought is right now.

HAGER: Yeah. A study that came out earlier this year really puts that into perspective. The dry period we're in right now is the worst the western U.S. has seen in 1,200 years.

SCHMITZ: Wow.

HAGER: You know, nowadays it can be pretty easy to get a little numb to that word, unprecedented. But the data shows that we are really in uncharted territory here, and that calls for some desperate measures. I talked about the plan with Kathryn Sorensen. She is a water policy researcher at Arizona State University.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: There isn't one overarching solution that's going to save the day. I don't know that anyone thinks that what's being proposed is fantastic, but it might very well be least worst.

SCHMITZ: So, Alex, by holding back water in Lake Powell, does that mean big cities that rely on the Colorado River for drinking water just won't get it - places like Phoenix and Los Angeles?

HAGER: No, not yet. California, Arizona and Nevada still have enough stored water that they are not going to have to shut off anybody's taps, you know, at least for now. All three of those states - they have also been coming up with new ways to conserve water - recycling it, making rules against lawns, really stretching out their limited water supply. Tom Buschatzke is the top water official in Arizona. He says the first thing to go would be outdoor watering for things like grass and swimming pools.

TOM BUSCHATZKE: I think there's going to be potentially those kinds of restrictions on the horizon if Mother Nature doesn't turn around and start providing a lot more water than it has over the last decade.

HAGER: They are likely going to have to do more of that because they are cutting into their reserves. At the end of the day here, there is more demand and supply. Populations in the southwest are growing, so demand is only going up. And all the climate scientists I've talked to say we should not expect the water to come back in any significant capacity.

SCHMITZ: Alex, seven states share the Colorado River. And how are they responding to this federal plan to hold back water from three of these states?

HAGER: Yeah. All of those states signed off on the federal plan. In their letter, they acknowledged that this kind of move is painful but necessary. The fact that all seven states in the basin are agreeing to this, even the states that would lose water as part of the plan, that says something about how dire this is getting.

SCHMITZ: Alex Hager reports on the Colorado River for member station KUNC in Greeley. Alex, thanks so much.

HAGER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "THE FALCON WILL FLY AGAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.