Colorado River water users face cuts as historic drought takes its toll

Some water use in the Southwest will be curtailed next year as the government declares an official shortage for the first time. 60 Minutes reports, Sunday.

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Forty million people depend on the mighty Colorado River for water, power, produce and recreation. But its waters are diminishing due to the severity of a 22-year drought. At the largest reservoir on the river, Lake Mead, the water level dropped so low, the federal government declared the first ever shortage on the Colorado, triggering mandatory cuts in the Southwest next year.

Bill Whitaker follows the Colorado River water system from Arizona to Utah for his report on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, October 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. PT on CBS.

Whitaker begins his journey at Lake Powell, where he goes out on the water with Colorado State University climate scientist Brad Udall. Due to historically dry conditions, the reservoir is down about 50 feet this year. Udall tells Whitaker the southwestern states that rely on the Colorado are confronting climate change - which he says is contributing to reduced river flows - and the impact of a century's worth of laws and agreements that allocate more water than is actually available. Udall says the region will have to make some hard choices.

"The only lever we control right now in the river is the demand lever," Udall says. "We have no control over the supply. So, we have to dial back demand." 

Central Arizona farmers will feel the pinch of next year's cuts. Whitaker speaks with Waylon Wuertz, a fourth-generation farmer who grows gourds, cotton and alfalfa in Pinal County, about 50 miles south of Phoenix.

"Pinal County alone, we're going to be losing… 98 billion gallons of water," he says. Wuertz estimates that about 50 % of the water he uses to irrigate his fields comes from the canal system that ferries Colorado River water across the desert. Next year, it will drop to about 20%, forcing him to leave fields unplanted.

As farmers, cities, states, and Native American tribes in the Colorado River Basin scramble for ways to manage a drier future, Udall says tiny tweaks won't suffice.

"A re-think's needed," Udall tells Whitaker. "Let's let ag grow crops that use less water. Let's figure out how to make cities use water as efficiently as possible…we need some optimism here, right?"