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As the Colorado River recedes, states that rely on it struggle to curb demand

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As the Colorado River shrinks, the seven states that rely on it for water and power need to cut their use to keep its biggest reservoirs from getting critically low. Earlier this summer, federal officials gave states a deadline to come up with a plan for cuts, but the deadline has come and gone with no agreement by the states. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: For an illustration of just how much the Colorado River system has receded over the past two decades, due to climate change and overuse, take a hike at Lake Powell. Earlier this summer, at the nation's second-largest reservoir on the Colorado River, a narrow desert side canyon that used to be filled to the brim was low enough to slosh through. A high watermark stained the red rock more than a hundred feet up. In some places, long-sunk objects are now visible.

Is that a boat?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

RUNYON: What the heck?

This system provides drinking water to 40 million people, and this reservoir is so low that its dam could lose the ability to produce hydropower in a little more than a year. That's why in June, the federal government said states had to make unprecedented cuts to their use.

TANYA TRUJILLO: We feel the urgency. They should feel the urgency.

RUNYON: That's Tanya Trujillo, an assistant secretary at the Interior Department. She and other federal water managers said that if the states couldn't come up with a plan for those cuts by an August deadline, the federal government would take action to protect the river system. But last week, that deadline came and went and still no plan. While the federal government did announce small cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico that were already on the books, it's still not clear what action they'll take to prevent the reservoirs from crashing.

ANDY MUELLER: Our water users really would like to understand the federal government when they say, if you don't take action, states, we will. Well, what are the actions being proposed?

RUNYON: Andy Mueller is general manager of the Colorado River District in western Colorado. He says that even though the federal government hasn't delivered on their threat to intervene, they still could. The cuts they asked for were clear - 2 to 4 million acre-feet. But the threat of what happens if the states can't get there still isn't.

MUELLER: If you don't know what that threat is, it's really hard to be motivated to take action.

RUNYON: Aversion to federal intervention runs deep along the Colorado River. Some state leaders say the feds should simply run the dams and not wade into policymaking. But as the crisis has deepened in recent years, others in the basin are beginning to crave federal leadership.

JOHN ENTSMINGER: I think it would be much more effective if the federal government, actually, in writing, articulates a plan.

RUNYON: John Entsminger is in charge of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves the Las Vegas metro area. When the states couldn't reach a plan, he pleaded with federal officials to take the reins and make hard decisions about where some of the cuts need to come from.

ENTSMINGER: The states have never accomplished anything meaningful without a credible federal threat.

RUNYON: In response to the charge that they should be doing more, federal water managers said they're going to continue working with states on a plan for cutbacks. No new deadline has been set. Kathryn Sorensen, a water policy researcher at Arizona State University, says if the federal government were to take drastic action, it could alienate people in states that rely on the river. But if the feds don't take action, the risk falls on the reservoirs.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: No one wants to make this call, right? It's not enviable to be in a position of saying who gets water and who doesn't.

RUNYON: Someone eventually will be in that position, Sorensen says, whether it's the federal government, the states or the users themselves.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Grand Junction, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.