Federal water restrictions in the West underscore severity of climate crisis

The federal government on Tuesday announced a second round of water restrictions to states that depend on the Colorado River Basin. The move comes as the American West faces unprecedented challenges to preserve water that continues to recede rapidly. Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, the federal government is further reducing the amount of water states can get from the Colorado River basin. The move comes as the American West faces unprecedented challenges to preserve a river that continues to rapidly recede.

    Stephanie Sy, who is in Arizona, has our report.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, today's water cuts demonstrate the ongoing severity of the drought in the West. Nearly 40 million people across seven states, as well as Mexico, rely on the Colorado River Basin.

    As of now, its reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are both below 30 percent full. As climate change continues to fuel drier conditions, next year, Arizona will lose 21 percent of its yearly supply of river water. Nevada will go without 8 percent and Mexico loses 7 percent of its allotment.

    For more on what all of this means, I'm joined by Jennifer Pitt. She has spent years researching and working to protect ecosystems in the Colorado River Basin, most recently as a program director for the National Audubon Society.

    Jennifer, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

    I want to jump right in. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Lake Mead, which supplies water to about 25 million people, is at an unprecedented tier two shortage. That was announced today. And that has triggered these cuts.

    How significant are they?

  • Jennifer Pitt, National Audubon Society:

    The cuts are significant, but I think even more significant is the rapidity with which the reservoirs on the Colorado River are declining. And we have clear indications that these cuts won't be enough.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And today was supposed to be this deadline for all of these states to reach an agreement on how to make cuts amounting to two to four million acre feet of water. They didn't meet that deadline.

    Are today's cuts all we should expect to see by way of federal intervention? And they clearly don't seem to be enough.

  • Jennifer Pitt:

    I think you're exactly right there.

    And, no, I don't think that's all we're going to see. The water just isn't there. The question is not whether there will be cuts. The question is who will make the decision about the cuts and how they will be allocated to different water users in the basin.

    So I would expect that, by the time 2023 rolls around, we will have a sense of who will be using less water, because we have no choice at this point.

  • Stephanie Sy:


    And is that going to require — they didn't set a new deadline, the Bureau of Reclamation, today. The states missed today's deadline. So what does happen next? And at what point do we see more federal intervention? Or is there hope that the states are going to reach some cooperative agreement?

  • Jennifer Pitt:

    So, you're correct in pointing out that there was no new deadline established today.

    And I do think that federal government officials, as well as really everybody who works on the Colorado River, would much prefer to see the states come up with their own collaborative solution. But I think the message we heard today is that, if that doesn't happen, there is no doubt that the federal government will take unilateral action.

    They have to do that to prevent catastrophic outcomes on the Colorado River.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The Bureau of Reclamation commissioner said today, Jennifer, that the system is approaching a — quote — "tipping point and, without action, we cannot protect the system."

    What abroad actions do you think are required at this point?

  • Jennifer Pitt:

    At this point, it's really going to be required that all water users in all of the geographies of the Colorado River Basin using Colorado River water figure out ways to use less.

    And that means cities figuring out how to use less. That means irrigated agriculture figuring out how to use less. It means everybody has to reduce uses of Colorado River water.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You talk about how it's used. And I'm in Arizona, Jennifer, which is facing some of the biggest cuts.

    And yet you see urban development continuing here unchecked. When you have growing cities out West here demanding more and more water from a shrinking river, how does that compute?

  • Jennifer Pitt:

    Well, it can seem impossible at times.

    One thing I would point out is that, in the last 20 years, we have seen that, where cities don't have access to water, they actually figure out how to add population and new housing developments without increasing their water use.

    And I think candidate number one for showing us how to do that at this point is Las Vegas. They are using less water than they were 20 years ago, and they have increased their population. So it can be done.

    We just have to figure out how to live a good life in the West with less water use.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I just want to ask you a sort of a mountaintop view question.

    And that is, is continuing to talk about this problem as a drought the right framing, or is it more realistic at this point to think about this as a climate change-driven phenomenon that is not going to end?

  • Jennifer Pitt:

    That's a great question.

    And, yes, I think you're spot on. What we're seeing is that, even in years with average snowpack, historically average snowpack, we're getting runoff into the river that is well below average. That's a result of the heat that we're experiencing in this region evaporating the water off the land, so that we're not getting water into the rivers, and we don't have that supply that we used to.

    So, we can expect this problem to continue. And we need to figure out durable solutions to this water supply crisis.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River Program director with the Audubon Society, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Jennifer Pitt:

    Thank you.

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