2017 Lower Colorado River Basin water use the lowest in a quarter century

Led by California, the states of the Lower Colorado River Basin had their lowest consumptive water use in 2017 since 1992, according to a near-final tally  by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The final numbers won’t be out until mid-May, so could change slightly, but at this point they won’t change much. And they show that, despite the chaotic politics you’ve been hearing about lately, Lower Colorado River Basin water users are pushing their water use in the right direction.

In each case, the three Lower Basin states in different ways and on different time scales have been confronting the reality that they had come to depend on more water than the river could provide in the long run. Policy interventions that include municipal conservation, agricultural conservation, and ag-to-urban water transfers are shifting the water balance in the right direction. With that as my benchmark – cuts from glutinous peak – here then are the near-final 2017 numbers:

California

  • 2017: 4.027 million acre feet
    • Lowest since 1950
  • Reduction from peak: 26 percent

Arizona

  • 2017: 2.511 million acre feet
    • Lowest since 2005
  • Reduction from peak: 16 percent

Nevada

  • 2017: 243,000 acre feet
    • Lowest since 2016
  • Reduction from peak: 26 percent

At 6.782 million acre feet, that’s the lowest since 1992, before the Central Arizona Project was completed – the last big straw sucking water out of Lake Mead.

When the final numbers are completed, they’ll be published here.

Note for the water nerds: The accounting systems are managed differently for the upper and lower basins, and it’ll be some time before we have comparable data for Colorado River water use in New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. For 2015, the most recent year for which we have upper basin data, use by those four states of 3.177 million acre feet (this figure does not include reservoir evaporation, to make it comparable to the Lower Basin data above) was the lowest since 1977. So, also, headed in the right direction.

When people have less water, they use less water.

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