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A water crisis on the Colorado River is getting worse

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A water crisis on the Colorado River is getting worse.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, new federal forecasts show the nation's two largest reservoirs are at record lows. They are both on the Colorado River in the American West, and they put the water supply of 40 million people in jeopardy. Federal water managers say they need to cut the water that they allocate to Arizona, to Nevada, and also to Mexico, through which the river also flows.

FADEL: Reporter Luke Runyon from member station KUNC joins us to explain the latest. Thanks for being here.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Hi, good to be here.

FADEL: So, Luke, how significant are the cuts that were announced yesterday, and who do they affect?

RUNYON: Well, these new cuts come on top of already existing ones. So next year, Arizona is going to have to reduce its reliance on the Colorado River by 21%, Nevada by 8%, and Mexico by 7%. And obviously, Arizona bears the greatest burden here. Farmers in central Arizona have already seen their supplies from the river shrink. But it's not like taps are going to go dry. The state has substantial water reserves, and it isn't solely reliant on the Colorado River. These new cuts are not anywhere close to bringing the entire river into balance, though. Here's Tanya Trujillo. She's the assistant secretary for water and science for the Interior Department.

TANYA TRUJILLO: Without prompt, responsive actions and investments now, the Colorado River and the citizens that rely on it will face a future of uncertainty and conflict.

FADEL: OK, so let's talk about what actions could be taken. Earlier this year, the federal government told all seven states that use the river to come up with a regional plan with more significant water cuts. But yesterday was the deadline and still no plan, right?

RUNYON: Right. So in June, the federal government told states they had two months to come up with that plan. They've been in talks since then, which have been slow and tense at times. And it's important to note that there isn't one person or agency that manages the Colorado River. Instead, you have this mishmash of agreements and laws and Supreme Court decrees that spell out how the river is divvied up. And that kind of loose governance doesn't really lend itself well to managing a crisis. The federal government did say in June that if the states didn't succeed, that they would take action to protect the Colorado River reservoirs. And in their announcement yesterday, they didn't get any more specific about what that action might end up being.

FADEL: So what happens next?

RUNYON: Well, the talks among the states are going to continue. Some water districts saw the government's announcement as a sort of deadline extension to keep working on that more regional plan. The federal government continues to say that in order to bring the river into balance, it's going to take conservation from all seven states and every sector. But of course that's easier said than done, and it's unclear just how aggressive the federal government wants to be about managing the crisis.

FADEL: Let's zoom out for a second. How did this crisis get so bad?

RUNYON: This is really more than two decades in the making. The Colorado River has been on the decline since the year 2000. Climate change is warming the region, and the river just has less water in it year to year. Meanwhile, demands for water haven't gone down to match that new reality, and figuring out who is going to have to use less water along the river to find that balance is where you find the most intense debates.

FADEL: Luke Runyon of KUNC. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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