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Colorado River Projected To Hit Shortage In 2020

The Colorado River, which flows out of Hoover Dam at the Arizona-Nevada border, is shown in this undated photo.
Luke Runyon / KUNC
The Colorado River, which flows out of Hoover Dam at the Arizona-Nevada border, is shown in this undated photo.

Low water levels on the Colorado River could force water shortages in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2020, according to a new forecast from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

A shortage on the river is tied to the level of its main reservoir, Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada. If the lake drops past an elevation of 1,075 feet, water users downstream have to start cutting back how much water they use. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects the lake to drop below that level next year, triggering water cutbacks in 2020.

Arizona would take the largest reduction in its share of the river’s water, with Nevada and Mexico also taking cutbacks.


RELATED: Colorado River Managers See A Possible Future And It Doesn’t Look Pretty

The fate of Lake Mead is linked to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. Mead’s dropping level will trigger an increased release of water in 2019 from Powell to balance the two reservoirs.

The new figures ramp up pressure on water managers in the river’s Lower Basin — comprised of Arizona, California and Nevada — to finish negotiations and sign an agreement to take reductions to their water allocations earlier than is currently required.

Earlier in 2018 Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman warned water managers, farmers and city leaders throughout the southwest that the status quo was unacceptable and any delay in action on drought plans could cause the river’s biggest reservoirs to “crash.”

Lake Mead has flirted with the shortage declaration for years, but water managers have left enough water in the reservoir to avoid mandatory cutbacks.


Seven U.S. states and two Mexican states rely on the Colorado River for water supplies.

Corrected: October 30, 2023 at 3:42 PM PDT
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.