Though the cuts will not result in any immediate new restrictions — like banning lawn watering or car washing — they signal that unpopular decisions about how to reduce consumption are on the horizon, including whether to prioritize growing cities or agricultural areas. Mexico will also face cuts.
But those reductions represent just a fraction of the potential pain to come for the 40 million Americans in seven states that rely on the river. Because the states failed to meet a federal deadline to figure out how to cut their water use by at least 15%, they could see even deeper cuts that the government has said are needed to prevent reservoirs from falling so low they cannot be pumped.
“The states collectively have not identified and adopted specific actions of sufficient magnitude that would stabilize the system,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton said.
Together, the missed deadline and the latest cuts put officials responsible for providing water to cities and farms under renewed pressure to plan for a hotter, drier future and a growing population.
Touton has said a 15% to 30% reduction is necessary to ensure that water deliveries and hydroelectric power production are not disrupted. She was noncommittal on Tuesday about whether she planned to impose those cuts unilaterally if the states cannot reach agreement.
She repeatedly declined to say how much time the states have to reach the deal she requested in June.
The inaction has stirred concerns throughout the region about the bureau’s willingness to act as states stubbornly cling to their water rights while acknowledging that a crisis looms.
“They have called the bureau’s bluff time and again,” Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said of the Colorado River basin states. “Nothing has changed with today’s news — except for the fact that the Colorado River system keeps crashing.”
For years, cities and farms have diverted more water from the river than flows through it, depleting its reservoirs and raising questions about how it will be divided as water becomes more scarce.