U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

The last day of January was looking like a banner day for Arizona's water planning. State lawmakers had passed legislation authorizing Arizona to enter into an important deal. Governor Doug Ducey signed the bills almost immediately.

A Jan. 31 deadline is approaching for the Drought Contingency Plans, a set of agreements between seven states about how to manage dwindling water supplies, including here in the Mountain West.

The region has been in a drought for 19 years now, and water levels continue to retreat in major reservoirs.

On stage in a conference room at Las Vegas's Caesars Palace, Keith Moses said coming to terms with the limits of the Colorado River is like losing a loved one.

"It reminds me of the seven stages of grief," Moses said. "Because I think we've been in denial for a long time."

Moses is vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, a group of four tribes near Parker, Arizona. He was speaking at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association meeting.

Key reservoirs along the Colorado River are collectively at their lowest point at the start of a new water year since the last one filled nearly 40 years ago.

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.

Reservoirs that store water along the Colorado River are projected to be less than half full later this year, potentially marking a historic low mark for the river system that supplies water to seven U.S. states and Mexico.

Forecasters with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expect the river’s reservoirs -- Lakes Mead and Powell among them -- to be at a combined 48 percent of capacity by the end of September. That would be one of the lowest points ever for the combined water storage.

The federal agency that oversees water in the West says southwestern states are facing an increasing risk of water shortages. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is now adding pressure to stalled talks over the Colorado River’s future.

Without action from states that rely on the river, there’s a 52 percent chance the Colorado River will be in an official shortage in 2020, according to figures compiled last month. Arizona and Nevada would be among the first to take cutbacks during a shortage. An extended drought and chronic overuse have sapped the river’s largest reservoirs.

U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation

A new interactive website from the U.S. Department of the Interior looks to educate the public on the effects of drought in the Colorado River Basin.