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With reservoirs at low levels, the federal government cuts water deliveries

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

2022 was a tough year for the Colorado River. The 23-year drought across the southwest grew worse. Demand for the river's water continued to outstrip supply. Climate change is shrinking the river that 1 in 10 Americans rely on, and policymakers are caught in a standoff about how to share it. From member station KUNC, Alex Hager has this look back.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: The Colorado River starts here, deep in the mountains of the state that shares its name. Nearly 60% of the river is born as snow in the Colorado Rockies. Stephen Jaouen with the Natural Resources Conservation Service trekked out into the woods to measure it.

STEPHEN JAOUEN: When I first started 15 years ago, you know, we'd actually measure some snow, the April-May survey. And a lot of times now we just walk in and there's no snow.

HAGER: Long-term climate patterns show a trend of warming and drying. That means less snow where it matters most. And when it does fall, it's melting quicker and getting soaked up by dry soil before it can reach the river. All of that is creating urgent problems. This year, water levels in America's two biggest reservoirs, both on the Colorado - Lake Mead and Lake Powell - hit all-time lows. That threatens their ability to generate hydropower, which millions of Americans depend on. Dropping levels could force operators to shut off hydropower turbines as early as next summer. Deep inside the concrete dam at Lake Powell, the turbines continue humming for now, but manager Bob Martin is worried.

BOB MARTIN: Anybody in hydropower, you know, their whole career is based on reliability of these units. So to come into a power plant being quiet would be very disturbing for me.

HAGER: Water leaders have assembled a patchwork of bandaids to stave off catastrophe, but they haven't reached a deal that would significantly reduce water demand. This summer, the federal agency that manages western water threatened to force cutbacks. Camille Calimlim Touton leads that agency. In June, she called on states to conserve an unprecedented amount.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAMILLE CALIMLIM TOUTON: Between 2 and 4 million acre feet of additional conservation is needed just to protect critical levels in 2023.

HAGER: That's about as much as the entire state of Colorado draws from the river most years. The request sent a seismic shock for the seven states that share water from the river, but it didn't pull them together to make a deal. The deadline passed, but there were no forced cutbacks. And the states are still caught in a standoff, pointing fingers at each other, reluctant to make hard sacrifices of their own. Becky Mitchell is Colorado's top river negotiator.

BECKY MITCHELL: We all have to be able to sell this. And it is really hard to sell something when there are winners and losers.

HAGER: Experts say dropping water levels and the struggle to cut back mean big changes needed across huge swathes of the country. Sara Dant is a professor of history at Weber State University in Utah.

SARA DANT: I think it's also this very stark and obvious indication that we have so long not understood the power of aridity.

HAGER: Dant says nature is winning out in places where conditions are too dry to sustain life as we know it. Climate change is making dry places even drier. Even John Wesley Powell, the Colorado river explorer for whom Lake Powell is named, warned that the West would never be as green as the East.

DANT: But nobody wanted to pay attention to him because, you know, let's gung ho, boom, boom. Here we go. Let's settle. And we've been putting off this reckoning with aridity for a long time now.

HAGER: States are scrambling to find some compromise and cut back on demand before 2026, when the current guidelines for the river expire. But climate change is only making that job harder, shrinking supplies with no end in sight. For NPR News, I'm Alex Hager. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Hager