As the worsening drought crisis continues to impact communities across the West,the Department of the Interior today announced urgent action to improve and protect the long–termsustainability of the Colorado River System, including commitments for continued engagement withimpacted states and Tribes. The Bureau of Reclamation also released the Colorado River Basin August2022 24–Month Study, which sets the annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2023 in light of critically low reservoir conditions.
Prolonged drought and low runoff conditions accelerated by climate change have led to historically lowwater levels in Lakes Powell and Mead. Over the last two decades, Department leaders have engagedwith Colorado River Basin partners on variousdrought response operations. However, given that water levels continue to decline, additional action is needed to protect the System.
In addition to the actions being announced today, the Biden–Harris administration is makingunprecedented investments in drought resilience and water management. President Biden’sBipartisanInfrastructure Lawmakes a historic $8.3 billion investment to address water and drought challengesand invest in our nation’s western water and power infrastructure, while rebuilding our existingprojects to withstand a changing hydrology. Additionally, the recently passedInflation Reduction Actincludes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought.
“The worsening drought crisis impacting the Colorado River Basin is driven by the effects of climatechange, including extreme heat and low precipitation. In turn, severe drought conditions exacerbatewildfire risk and ecosystems disruption, increasing thestress on communities and our landscapes,” saidDeputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau.“The Biden–Harris administration is taking an all–of–governmentapproach to mitigating the drought, and the Interior Department is committed to using every resourceavailable to conserve water and ensure that irrigators, Tribes and adjoining communities receive adequate assistance and support to build resilient communities and protect our water supplies.”
“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency.In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River Systemand a future of uncertainty andconflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” saidAssistant Secretary for Water and ScienceTanyaTrujillo.“The Interior Department isemployingprompt and responsive actions and investmentsto ensurethe entire Colorado River Basincanfunction and support all who rely on it. We are gratefulfor the hardworking public servants who have dedicated their lives to this work, and who are passionate about the long–term sustainability of Basin states, Tribes, and communities.”
“The solution to our challengesrelieson the bedrock of a century of collaboration and partnership inthe Colorado River Basin.But as water stewards,it is our responsibility to protect the systemand themillions of Americans who depend on it. Today, Reclamation starts the process on actions we can taketo deliver on those responsibilities,”saidBureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille CalimlimTouton.“Reclamation remains fully committed to working in a consensus manner across the Upper and Lower Basins, with Tribes, and with the country of Mexico. I am confident that, by working together, we can achieve meaningful change toward a sustainable future for the river that serves as the lifeblood of the American West.”
2023 Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead
Given the 23-year ongoing historic drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams – which created Lakes Powell and Mead – will be reduced again in 2023 due to declining reservoir levels. In the Lower Basin, the reductions represent the second year of additional shortage declarations, demonstrating the severity of the drought and critically low reservoir conditions.
The key determinations from the August 2022 24-Month Study include:
Lake Powell will operate in the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier in water year 2023 (Oct. 1, 2022, through Sept. 30, 2023). The 24-Month Study projects Lake Powell’s Jan. 1, 2023, water surface elevation to be 3,521.84 feet – 178 feet below full pool (3,700 feet) and 32 feet above minimum power pool (3,490 feet). The August 24-Month Study projects that Lake Powell will likely release 7 million acre-feet in water year 2023 with the potential for Powell releases to range between 7 to 9.5 maf during water year 2023, depending on hydrologic conditions, as Lake Powell and Lake Mead balance storage contents under the Lower Elevation Balancing Tier.
The Department will evaluate hydrologic conditions in April 2023 and will implement the Interim Guidelines Section 7.D by limiting water year 2023 releases (with a minimum of 7.0 maf) to protect Lake Powell from declining below 3,525 feet at the end of December 2023.
Lake Mead will operate in its first-ever Level 2a Shortage Condition in calendar year 2023 (Jan. 1, 2023, through Dec. 31, 2023). The August 24-Month Study projects Lake Mead’s Jan. 1, 2023, operating determination elevation to be 1,047.61 feet, which is calculated by taking Lake Mead’s projected end of calendar year 2022 physical elevation (1,040.78 feet) and adding the 480,000 acre-feet of water held back in Lake Powell to Lake Mead’s capacity to maintain operational neutrality. The projected elevation of 1,047.61 feet reflects a Level 2a Shortage Condition, within the DCP elevation band of 1,045 and 1,050 feet, with required shortage reductions and water savings contribution for the Lower Basin States and Mexico, pursuant to Minute 323, as follows:
Arizona: 592,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 21% of the state’s annual apportionment
Nevada: 25,000 acre-feet, which is 8% of the state’s annual apportionment
Mexico: 104,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 7% of the country’s annual allotment
There is no required water savings contribution for California in 2023 under this operating condition.
In May 2022, drought operations to protect Lake Powell were implemented under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement, and Glen Canyon Dam releases were reduced under the 2007 Interim Guidelines,which together provided approximately 1millionacre–feet of additional waterto help protect water levels at Lake Powell. Building on these important responsive actions,Reclamation will begin efforts to modify low reservoir operations at both Lake Powell and Lake Meadto be prepared to reduce releases from these reservoirs in 2024 to address continued drought and lowrunoff conditions in the Basin.
Reclamation will continue to implement the applicable provisions of the 2007 Colorado River InterimGuidelines for Lower Basin Shortages andcoordinatedoperations forboth reservoirs:Minute 323 tothe 1944 U.S. Mexico Water Treaty; and the 2019 Drought ContingencyPlans.
Call for Basin–Wide Conservation
In recent months, Reclamation has sharedupdatedinformation documenting the increasing risksthatwill continue to impactLake Powell and Lake Mead.Reclamation’s“Protection Volume Analysis”detailsthat, depending on future snowpack and runoff, a range of actions will be needed to stabilizeelevations at Lake Powell and Lake Meadoverthe nextfouryears (2023–2026). The analysis shows,depending on Lake Powell’s inflow, that the additional water or conservation needed ranges from600,000 acre–feet to 4.2 maf annually.
In June 2022, Commissioner Touton testified before theU.S.Senate Committee on Energy and NaturalResourcesand called on water users across the Basin to take actions to prevent the reservoirs fromfalling to critically low elevations that would threaten waterdeliveries and power production.Reclamation is using the best available science and actively collaborating with water users across theBasin to determine the best ways to meet this increased conservation need.
Accordingly, in addition toundertaking preliminary work to develop the post–2026 strategies andoperations, as several reservoir and water management decision documents expire at the end of 2026,Reclamation will immediately initiate a number of administrative actions in the Basin.
In the Upper Basin, Reclamation will:
Takeadministrative actions needed to authorize a reduction of Glen Canyon Dam releasesbelow 7 million acre–feet per year, if needed,to protect critical infrastructure at Glen CanyonDam.
Accelerate ongoing maintenance actions and studies to determine and enhance projectedreliability of the use of theriveroutletworks, commonly referred to as the bypass tubes, atGlen Canyon Dam for extended periods.
Support technical studies to ascertain if physical modifications can be made to Glen CanyonDam to allow water to be pumped or released from below currently identified critical and deadpool elevations.
Continue to work with the Basin states, Basin Tribes, stakeholders and partners to be preparedto implement additionalsubstantialreleases from Upper Basin Reservoirs to help enhancereservoir elevations at Lake Powellunderthe Drought Contingency Plan’sDrought Response Operations Agreement.
Invest in system conservation and voluntary agreements.
Consider other operational actions to establish flexibility in Upper Basin operations at Reclamation facilities.
In the Lower Basin, Reclamation will:
Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead,including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Meaddeclining to critically low elevations.
Prioritize and prepare for additionaladministrative initiatives that wouldensure maximumefficient and beneficial use ofurban andagricultural water,and address evaporation, seepageand other system lossesin the Lower Basin.
Support technical studies to ascertain if physical modifications can be made to Hoover Dam toallow water to be pumped/released from elevations below currently identified dead poolelevations.
Invest in system conservation and voluntary agreements.
Consider other operational actions to establishflexibility in Lower Basin operations atReclamation facilities.
TheDepartment’sapproach will continue to seek consensus support and will be based on a continuedcommitment to engage with partners across theBasinstates,Tribesand thecountryof Mexico to ensure all communities that rely on the Colorado River will provide contributions toward the solutions.