Farmers from Arizona to Oregon are facing water shortages as climate change drives up the average temperature and dries out the land. Now, farmers in Arizona and other western states are expected to face the first mandatory water supply cuts in the country's history.
40 million residents depending on water from Lake Mead and the Colorado River will be expected to cut back. While scientists always knew droughts were coming, Lake Mead has fallen far more quickly than predicted and has now reached record low levels, standing at 35% capacity as of mid-August.
"There's no doubt that climate change is real. We're experiencing it every day in the Colorado River Basin and in other basins in the West," said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo.
Arizona is expected to implement the first and most significant cuts, but Nevada and New Mexico are also likely to see water supply restrictions. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of the cuts, plans to exclude cities and reservations from the reduction.
Arizona is in this position because, as a part of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, it agreed to sacrifice its water supply first in exchange for federal funding for a canal meant to transport water to cities in the state. The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project, the bodies in charge of the state's canal systems, say Arizona has been preparing for a shortage for decades.
"It doesn't make it any less painful. But at least we know what is coming," Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project, told reporters.
As the group expected to bear the brunt of the cutbacks, farmers have been getting ready. Fields have been left unplanted; land has been laser leveled; canals have been lined; and drip irrigation systems have been installed. In areas like AZ's Pinal County, up to 40% of farmland is being left fallow. Farmers have also been experimenting with improved methods to reduce water consumption as well as the production of drought-resistant crops.
However, even knowing that the cuts are coming is unlikely to make them much easier to bear, according to farmers in the area. Next year, Pinal County's water allotment from the Colorado RIver is expected to be cut by a whopping 60%.
With Lake Mead at critically low levels, officials from Nevada, California, and Arizona are meeting to discuss future cuts and other possible solutions.
"Reclamation does not take these actions lightly or do so easily. We do so because it is necessary, protecting the system and implementing the agreements we have in place," Camille Touton, Deputy Commissioner of Reclamation told reporters. "The Bureau of Reclamation... [recognizes] that additional actions will likely be necessary in the very near future."
The agency's report on the projected reservoir levels in the coming years shows that even larger cuts may be necessary in 2023 and 2024. At that point, Arizona cities are likely to face water supply reductions, as well.
"We must adapt to the new reality of a warmer, drier future," Southern Nevada Water Authority official John Entsminger said. "While the future is sobering, we are in this together."
However, climate activists say these actions don't go far enough, arguing that the cuts agreed to under the 2019 plan are no longer sufficient. Scientific researchers say that at this point "everything's on the table" when it comes to address the water shortages.