Feds Will Spend Billions to Boost Drought-Stricken Colorado River System

As climate change tightens its grip on the Colorado River basin, the states that use its water are struggling to agree on terms that will reduce their demand. Now, the federal government is stepping in with a plan to use billions of dollars to incentivize conservation.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced new measures in response to the ongoing dry conditions, unveiling plans to use a chunk of the $4 billion it received as part of the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act. That money will be used for what the agency refers to as “short-term conservation,” to remove water-intensive grass in cities and suburbs, and to upgrade aging canals. 

A detailed breakdown of that spending has not yet been released. Multiple sources close to the situation told KUNC that the bulk of Reclamation’s $4 billion will go to projects in the Colorado River basin, with the majority going to “system conservation.” That could include buying water from the agriculture sector to boost water levels in the nation’s largest reservoirs.

That funding will likely be doled out as part of a voluntary program in which farmers and ranchers can make a pitch to the federal government, offering to pause growing in exchange for payments of $300 to $400 per acre-foot of water, sources told KUNC. Those payments are expected to be temporary, mainly focused in the river’s Lower Basin states, and may someday give way to more permanent, higher-value federal payments in exchange for water. 

“Hopefully, it could help us stave off the worst and deal with some of the processes that we need to deal with in order to ensure the infrastructure functions and those sorts of emergency measures,” said Elizabeth Koebele, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “But one thing that’s really important about this is it’s not really a long term measure, and the money’s not there to do this in perpetuity.”

Reclamation previously tested system conservation efforts in a pilot program that ran from 2014 to 2019, but has not implemented similar water buybacks at a large scale since. Earlier this year, states in the river’s Upper Basin urged the federal government to revive system conservation work. 

“I personally have a hard time believing that we’re going to see a massive change in reservoir levels as a result of system conservation by itself,” Koebele said. “This might be sort of a program that helps states establish their own programs for longer term system conservation. That said, we’re in such a dire situation that almost anything in the short term can help.”

Water from the Colorado River is used to irrigate crops near Yuma, Arizona. Agriculture uses about 80% of the Colorado River’s water, and that sector is under mounting pressure to reduce its demand. Credit: Alex Hager/KUNC
Water from the Colorado River is used to irrigate crops near Yuma, Arizona. Agriculture uses about 80% of the Colorado River’s water, and that sector is under mounting pressure to reduce its demand. Credit: Alex Hager/KUNC

Kimery Wiltshire, president of Confluence West, a group of water leaders around the region, said she was struck by the words “seek” and “encourage” that Reclamation used in regards to water conservation, adding that voluntary measures would not do much, especially if payouts to growers are relatively low. 

By comparison, a group of farmers near Yuma, Arizona recently proposed a water conservation plan in which they would be paid about $1500 per acre-foot of water saved, according to Axios

“Unfortunately, I don’t think that what they’re proposing is going to get us to where we so desperately need to go, very quickly,” Wiltshire said. “Frankly, what Interior really can’t do a whole heck of a lot about is getting to the underlying causes. We don’t have the demand management that we need. We’re consuming too much water. We need to go to significantly less thirsty crops than what we’re growing right now.”

These new federal actions come after states failed to meet an important water conservation deadline this summer. In June, Reclamation asked the seven states that use water from the Colorado River to conserve an unprecedented quantity, 2 to 4 million acre-feet, or the federal government would step in and implement its own conservation measures. Two months later, after finger-pointing between the states, they had no plan in time for the deadline.

“I am committed to bringing every resource to bear to help manage the drought crisis and provide a sustainable water system for families, businesses and our vast and fragile ecosystems,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a press release.

Federal agencies shared early details of the plan at an invitation-only gathering of water policy leaders in Santa Fe, New Mexico this week.

Another portion of Reclamation’s IRA money will go to longer-term, “durable” projects, generally improvements to the region’s water infrastructure aimed at boosting efficiency. That could include re-lining canals to prevent water from seeping into the ground, and the removal of ornamental and non-functional turf grass that only serves an aesthetic purpose. The agency also said funds could be given to ecosystem restoration and crop water efficiency projects.

While the Southwest’s growing population has prompted cities to tout their own water-saving programs, the vast majority of water use in the region comes from farms and ranches. Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the Colorado River’s water, and that sector is under mounting pressure to reduce its demand. 

Reclamation also hinted at more reductions to water released from the basin’s reservoirs in 2023. The agency has already announced relatively small, mandatory cuts to some water users in the lower Colorado River basin as part of measures previously laid out in 2019 and 2007 agreements. This latest announcement suggested the agency may alter those agreements, saying it could “adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes” that were already spelled out. 

The announcement also included a note that Reclamation will speed up its studies of bypass tubes at the Glen Canyon dam, which holds back the waters of Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir. Environmental groups recently raised alarm that as levels in Lake Powell continue to drop, the reservoir’s water may soon be unable to pass through rarely-used pipes in the dam at a sufficient rate, jeopardizing the flow of water to millions of people who depend on it in Nevada, Arizona, and California.

The Bureau of Reclamation, a subdivision of the Department of the Interior, is the federal agency tasked with managing water in the Western U.S. While it also manages water infrastructure outside of the Colorado River basin, much of its energy and spending has been focused on the Colorado over the past year. That river supplies roughly 40 million people from Wyoming into Mexico, and is currently strained by a supply-demand imbalance made worse by a 23-year megadrought that is driven by climate change. 

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

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