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The White House unveils a plan to keep the 2 largest reservoirs from falling too low

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Biden administration is calling the Colorado River megadrought one of the nation's biggest challenges. So the White House has unveiled an emergency plan to save the country's two largest reservoirs from falling too low to generate electricity and deliver drinking water to cities. NPR's Kirk Siegler brings us the details.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: This emergency drought plan, now up for public comment, could allow the White House to force large, mandatory water cuts across Arizona, California and Nevada, even among water users who hold senior rights to take all they're legally entitled to from the shrinking river. The deputy secretary of interior, Tommy Beaudreau, chose one of the most alarming but fitting backdrops in the region right now to deliver the news.

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TOMMY BEAUDREAU: If you look out the window on this setting, you see the water intakes for Hoover Dam.

SIEGLER: And the nation's largest reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, is so low, it's perilously close to what's called dead pool. That's when hydropower would be cut off to millions of Westerners and no water would flow below those bare, exposed intakes to cities or farms where a lot of the nation's produce has grown.

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BEAUDREAU: We're in the third decade of a historic drought that has caused conditions that the people who built this system would not have imagined.

SIEGLER: Even a hundred years ago, though, when the Colorado was first dammed and diverted on an industrial scale, there were warnings that its water was way overpromised. But climate change and the Southwest now being as dry as it's been in 1,200 years appears to finally be forcing a reckoning. This draft plan's release comes as the seven states that rely on the Colorado have so far failed to come up with their own voluntary agreement to cut water. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told reporters there has to be sacrifice in this crisis.

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CAMILLE TOUTON: Fundamentally, it is one community comprised of 40 million people and landscapes that need us to get this right.

SIEGLER: There are actual examples lately of compromises being brokered to save the river, from farmers with senior water rights being paid to not plant crops to cities and tribes volunteering to keep some of their water in Lake Mead.

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STEPHEN ROE LEWIS: Piipaash.

SIEGLER: Just a few days ago in Phoenix, White House officials joined with Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian community. The tribe has agreed to keep a huge amount of its water in Lake Mead, raising the reservoir by up to two feet in exchange for help modernizing its irrigation water recycling.

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LEWIS: We were historically excluded from the table. Now we're being key players.

SIEGLER: Well, the hope here is that more compromises like this will be made in order to avoid the mandatory cuts the government's new plan could allow. Cuts could bring prolonged legal challenges from some of the river's oldest and first users, even as the Colorado itself continues to shrink.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.