Farmers brace for water cuts as US declares first ever shortage in west

Water rationing will take effect in January for states in Lower Colorado River Basin

A river runs dry: drought on the Colorado

A river runs dry: drought on the Colorado
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Nancy Caywood lies awake at night worrying about water. The third-generation farmer in Casa Grande, Arizona doesn't know how much longer her family can hold on to the land they have farmed for nearly 100 years.

“We're very nervous, you know. We will have the money to [pay for] water and taxes this year,” said Ms Caywood, 67. “But I don't know about the next or after the next.”

The western United States has been ravaged by a 22-year drought that has been intensified by climate change and US officials on Monday declared the first-ever water shortage for the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead.

Starting in January 2022, water apportionments to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will be reduced, a spokesperson for the US Bureau of Reclamations confirmed to The National.

That means farmers like Ms Caywood, will face a reduction in their access to water coming from the reservoir.

The historic cuts could lead to a cascade of consequences that will be felt across America.

Lake Mead, which was created by the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1936, is fed by the Colorado River. The river and its tributaries snake through seven states and Mexico and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people. Lake Mead alone provides potable water to 25 million people and is the primary source of water for the city of Las Vegas.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation which manages the reservoirs along the Colorado river, the river’s storage capacity is down to just 40 percent, a nine per cent drop from the previous year.

“Like much of the west, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a statement.

“The only way to address these challenges and climate change is to utilise the best available science and to work cooperatively across the landscapes and communities that rely on the Colorado River.”

The US government has been planning for this moment for the better part of two decades. In 2007, the seven states connected to the Colorado River agreed to a series of guidelines that stipulated if Lake Mead dropped below a certain level, a series of water rationing measures would be triggered.

Under the newly-declared Level 1 measures, Arizona will see an 18 per cent reduction in its appointment of water. Nevada will see a 7 per cent reduction and Mexico will lose 5 per cent of its annual water from the river.

That 18 per cent reduction could have devastating effects for farmers who help feed the country.

Ms Caywood’s family farm draws water from the San Carlos Irrigation District, which has already dramatically reduced their intake.

The Caywoods have historically grown alfalfa, cotton, wheat and barley on their approximately 100 hectares. But this year because of water cuts they’ve had to leave about 40 hectares fallow.

The only crop they’ve managed to grow this year is alfalfa and even that has been a struggle.

“Our alfalfa hasn't seen any water since April 1, and they just turned brown,” Ms Caywood, 67, told The National.

Her family has had to lease land that draws water from the Central Arizona Project, a massive diversion canal that brings water from the Colorado River to Arizona, just to survive.

“If we did not have those other two farms leased to us that have Central Arizona Project water, I don't know what we would do,” she said.

But now that Lake Mead has entered a Level 1 shortage, even the land that was meant to save them may be affected.

The Bureau of Reclamation warned these cuts may be just the first in a series of painful reductions for those who rely on the Colorado River.

“While these agreements and actions have reduced the risk, we have not eliminated the potential for continued decline of these critically important reservoirs,” said Camille Touton, Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Scientists fear the water situation in the western US may only get worse.

“I think as long as people keep coming to the west, and the climate continues to do what it's been doing, I would anticipate that we would have problems in the future,” said David Kreamer, a professor of hydrology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Earlier this week, 10 governors from the southwestern US wrote a letter to President Joe Biden to provide urgent assistance to states stricken by drought and wildfires to “protect America’s farmers, ranchers and fishers.”

“Historic drought levels threaten to eliminate entire crops, depress yields and harbour extreme levels of pests and disease that add to the cumulative loss,” the governors wrote.

The governors also warned of the devastating impacts of water cuts.

“Some drought-impacted communities are already running out of drinking water, a situation that could become much more widespread with prolonged drought,” they said.

Despite the drought and water cuts, Ms Caywood and her family are determined to find solutions to keep the farm going, so her grandchildren can one day take over.

Updated: August 17, 2021, 5:44 PM