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The seven U.S. states along the Colorado River — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California — are up against yet another deadline to curb their water use amid extreme drought. They have until Tuesday to agree on massive voluntary cuts or the Bureau of Reclamation, a Department of the Interior agency, has said it will impose cuts on them.
The basin states have called the federal government’s bluff before, but whatever happens next week, millions of westerners and their livelihoods will be affected.
This isn’t just about water users, though: The river also supplies hydroelectric power across the West. But as the Colorado’s water levels dwindle, it’s becoming harder and more expensive to maintain energy consumption at the levels we’re used to.
A large chunk of the electricity generated in the West comes from hydropower. In times of drought, the cities and towns that rely on that power typically turn to dirtier, less efficient and more expensive sources.
This includes oil and natural gas, said Bryan Hill of the public electric utility in Page, Arizona.
“With water levels on Lake Powell reaching historic lows, we’re having to go out onto the marketplace,” Hill said. “The cost of the energy that we bring into Page has at least doubled.”
He hopes the recent wet weather in the West will translate into a boost for the reservoir in the springtime. But there are no guarantees, said Adrienne Marshall, a hydrologist at the Colorado School of Mines.
“We don’t know how much that will help the reservoirs and help hydropower production,” she said.
If the rest of winter is warmer or drier, plenty of mountain snowpack could evaporate, Marshall added. “Even if we do get some good runoff, we also should not count on one wet water year to get us out of a long-term mess.”
That’s exactly what some water managers are banking on as they debate the best way to conserve water.
“There’s still a lot of tension about how deep we need to cut now or how much we can put off,” said John Fleck at the University of New Mexico.
Hoping that the megadrought will let up in the coming years, Hill said he understands the stress. “Nobody wants to give up their water,” he said. “Water is wealth.”
And with wealth comes power. Without major compromises, Hill added, cities like Page are going to have a hard time keeping the lights on.
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