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7 states must figure out how to conserve an unprecedented amount of water

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Water managers in the western U.S. are facing a monumental task. Federal officials have given seven states an August deadline to figure out a plan to conserve an unprecedented amount of water. Without major cutbacks in water use, the nation's two largest reservoirs are in danger of reaching critically low levels. We're joined now by Alex Hager, who covers water for member station KUNC in Colorado. Hi there.

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Hey - good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: How much water are we talking about here?

HAGER: Well, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is asking states to conserve 2 to 4 million acre feet of water. So for some context, the entire state of Colorado uses just over 2 million acre feet every year. The backdrop here is more than two decades of drought in the Colorado River basin. Climate scientists say that is not likely to turn around any time soon. And 40 million people across the southwest rely on water from that system, and the supply is just getting stretched thin.

SHAPIRO: If the drought has been going on for two decades, why is there the sudden, urgent deadline?

HAGER: Well, the current rules for how to share the river's water expire in 2026. And we've been expecting serious negotiations in time for that deadline. But climate change has been making the West much drier much more quickly than a lot of people expected and basically made it so those decisions couldn't wait until 2026. We have seen a whole patchwork of different water conservation plans in the past. And even some of the bigger cutbacks, those were a quarter or less of the amount that we're talking about this summer.

SHAPIRO: How are water managers in these seven states reacting to the call?

HAGER: Yeah, right now, the mood is pretty shell shocked. This is Colby Pellegrino with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas.

COLBY PELLEGRINO: If you're using Colorado River water in any way, you should be internalizing how you can help solve the problem.

HAGER: There's a lot of tension between states about who should give up water. And this is a serious test of whether they can come together and actually come up with a plan to sacrifice some.

SHAPIRO: So 2 to 4 million acre feet of water is just a huge amount. Where can states find that level of conservation?

HAGER: Yeah, the short answer is that it is probably going to have to come from agriculture. About three-quarters of the water from the Colorado River goes to farming and ranching from Colorado all the way down to Mexico. And cities have actually done a lot to conserve water over the years. Even if you turned off the spigot to Phoenix, Vegas, Los Angeles, you'd still have a supply-and-demand issue. There's just not that much water left to conserve in cities, which is why farms and ranches have a target on their backs.

SHAPIRO: And so what happens if they don't meet the deadline in 60 days?

HAGER: Yeah, that is one of the really big questions here. If they can't, the federal government says they're going to come in and do it for them. And some people think that is what's going to happen. Sarah Porter is a water policy researcher at Arizona State University.

SARAH PORTER: I expect that there will just have to be action by the Department of Interior as was essentially threatened.

HAGER: It is really hard to get any water user to volunteer their share for conservation. So either way, there's going to be a lot of conversations about who gets less and when. So this summer is going to be a tense one, and the science shows how much climate change is likely to keep this region dry. So it really is a question of how to divide that shrinking supply going forward.

SHAPIRO: That's reporter Alex Hager of member station KUNC in Colorado. Thanks for joining us today.

HAGER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Hager