Feds copped out on the Colorado. Bonus: Western senators' $4B slush fund
But the federal government left unresolved the looming question of how seven Western states will divide what’s left of the dwindling river in the years ahead. Those states blew past Monday’s deadline, set by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in June, to reach a voluntary agreement on how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet — up to a third of the river’s annual average flow. -- Partlow and Bruliard, Washington Post, Aug. 16, 2022
In other words, midterms Trump. -- blj
U.S. announces more water cuts as Colorado River hits dire lows
The new shortage triggered by low reservoir levels comes comes as states negotiate how to make major reductions in water use
By Joshua Partlow and Karin Brulliard
As the historic drought in the U.S. Southwest pushes the nation’s largest reservoirs to record lows, the Biden administration Tuesday announced that water shortages along the Colorado River had passed a threshold for the first time that will require unprecedented water cuts in Arizona and Nevada.
But the federal government left unresolved the looming question of how seven Western states will divide what’s left of the dwindling river in the years ahead. Those states blew past Monday’s deadline, set by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in June, to reach a voluntary agreement on how to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet — up to a third of the river’s annual average flow.
Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau on Tuesday told reporters there was “still time” to find consensus, and Reclamation officials did not say when they might impose their own cuts if no deal is reached.
The announcement underscored both how dire drought conditions have become in the Colorado River basin and the challenge of getting competing states to cut vital water supplies that sustain cities, agriculture and hydropower for millions of people.
The Colorado River’s decline has drained three-quarters of the water from the nation’s largest reservoirs, falling closer than ever to levels where hydroelectric dams can’t generate power and millions will lose access to drinking water and irrigation supplies. By declaring Tuesday that the Lower Colorado River Basin has reached what’s called a “Tier 2” shortage, the bureau is requiring cuts in water use that will diminish what Arizona gets by 21 percent, Nevada by 8 percent and the country of Mexico by 7 percent.
“The system is approaching a tipping point, and without action we cannot protect the system and the millions of Americans who rely on this critical resource,” M. Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, said during a news conference. “Protecting the system means protecting the people of the American West.”
There are designated supplies for Upper Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and Lower Basin states (California, Nevada and Arizona), as well as Mexico, where the river ends in the Sea of Cortez. State officials from both regions have expressed frustration in recent days with negotiations on curbing water use.
Colorado officials have said they’re looking for the Lower Basin to do more, while Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke on Tuesday called it “unacceptable” his state must “continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed.”
“Through our collective inaction, the federal government, the basin states and every water user on the Colorado River is complicit in allowing the situation to reach this point,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, wrote in a letter this week to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
The root of the problem is an ongoing 23-year drought, the worst stretch for the region in more than a millennium. Mountain snowpack that feeds the 1,450-mile river has been steadily diminishing as the climate warms. Ever-drier soils absorb runoff before it can reach reservoirs, and more frequent extreme heat hastens evaporation.
“The prolonged drought afflicting the West is one of the most significant challenges facing our communities and our country,” Beaudreau said. “The growing drought crisis is driven by the effects of climate change, including extreme heat and low precipitation.”
'Where there's bodies, there's treasure': A hunt as Lake Mead shrinks
In searching for a solution, state officials say they are seeking to balance both short-term needs to save Lakes Mead and Powell from dipping too low, and also set themselves up for a longer-term agreement where everyone will have to find ways to use less water because climate change has made the West hotter and drier.
“What we’re facing here is that continued drawdown at Powell and Mead starts to affect people’s physical ability to get water,” said Deven Upadhyay, assistant general manager and chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a major urban water provider that gets a quarter of its supply from the Colorado River.
“It’s not like we can argue over this forever, and then the reservoir goes dry and you don’t have access to water, and at that point you’re not negotiating anything,” he said. “That is a powerful driver that is very different about these discussions now.”)
But balancing the demands of so many states, cities, tribes and farmers is no easy task. The Colorado River was divided up a century ago, and within those broad outlines there is a tangled web of junior and senior water rights, outdated allocations and inequities that originally left Native Americans out of the equation.
Entsminger, of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said that negotiations over the past two months have “produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to help forestall the looming crisis.”
In the West's fastest growing metro area, a rising fear the water may run out
River experts say the current ultimatum from the federal government is the start of a period of unprecedented drama along the river.
“The most tumultuous time in its 100-year history is likely to be in the next few years,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. The Bureau of Reclamation, he added, “moves at a glacial pace. So for them to testify to Congress that the states have 60 days to come up with a plan to cut between 2 to 4 million acre-feet is seismic. It is revelatory. It is shocking. It is amazing.”
“How do we decide who takes the cuts? This is the biggest challenge across the Colorado River basin,” he said.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s cutbacks announced Tuesday as part of the Tier 2 shortage are serious, but they’re small-scale compared with what’s being discussed in the larger negotiation among the states. Under Tier 2, Arizona will be asked to reduce usage next year by an additional 592,000 acre-feet and Nevada by 25,000 acre-feet, while Mexico must cut 104,000 acre-feet. This is the second consecutive year that authorities have declared such shortages.
Colorado River experts describe the cuts of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet sought by the federal government as a sensible amount given the emergency conditions on the river.
Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University, said Bureau of Reclamation data shows basin states have been overusing about 1.2 million acre-feet of water each year for most of this century, failing to rebuild water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell even during wetter years. Dry winters and poor runoff probably pushed that overuse figure closer to 1.8 million acre-feet in 2021 and 2022, he said — just under the minimum that Reclamation asked the states to cut.
Lake Powell is expected to be at 3,522 feet by Jan. 1, 2023 — a level that is just 32 feet above an electricity-generating threshold known as the “minimum power pool.” Lake Mead is expected to be at 1,048 feet, prompting the additional cutbacks in Nevada, Arizona and Mexico.
Biden administration officials said they intended to study whether the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams can be modified to release water at lower levels. They also expected more releases from other reservoirs to the north to sustain levels at these key lakes.
While details of the negotiations among the states have not been made public, statements by those involved have underscored the divisions between the Upper and Lower Basins, pointing to the difficulty of any compromise.
Last month, the Upper Basin states issued a five-point conservation plan that did not specify savings targets but suggested, among other steps, restarting a 2015 program that compensated farmers for fallowing land and possibly releasing additional water from upstream reservoirs.
In an online conversation hosted by the Colorado Sun last week, Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, declined to put a number on the sacrifice the Upper Basin is willing to make. “We have always said, really, success is dependent on what happens in the Lower Basin,” she said. “Anything we can do is meaningless unless there are actual cuts to what’s being used in the Lower Basin.”
In the Lower Basin, which uses far more water than its neighbors to the north, water managers and farmers are bracing for painful disruptions. Major agricultural regions in California and Arizona are predicting U.S. food supplies could be squeezed as farmers will have to leave more land unplanted.
“It’s an issue that affects the entire country because so much of the nation’s fresh produce comes from the Imperial and Yuma valleys,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. “Without adequate water supplies, that’s going to affect the amount and quality of food and fresh fruits and vegetables that make it into the grocery stores.”
Wade said that some 690,000 acres are expected to be left fallow in California this year, leaving crops such as tomatoes, melons, rice and alfalfa in shorter supply, and more is expected with future Colorado River cuts. Paul Orme, a lawyer who represents farmers in Pinal County, Ariz., said that of the 250,000 acres of irrigable land in the county, up to 100,000 will have to be left unplanted, a situation that’s “bad in every direction.”
“ ‘Fallowing’ is the F-word around here — nobody likes it,” said Robert Schettler, a spokesman with the Imperial Irrigation District in California, a supplier of irrigation water from the Colorado River. “It has an impact on the local economy. And agriculture is our backbone. Productive land is taken out of production. There’s less work for farmworkers, seed salesmen, hay balers and everything that goes with it.”
Tomatoes are harvested in the San Joaquin Valley of California across the road from a field that was fallowed due to water shortages. (John Brecher for The Washington Post)
Water managers and others expect farmers in the West will be paid to not plant crops. Many are hopeful that some of the funding could come from the $4 billion targeted for drought mitigation that’s part of the Inflation Reduction Act that President Biden signed Tuesday.
Upadhyay, of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said those funds hopefully can ease the near-term pain of adjusting to less water. But he said authorities should also be investing in more-efficient irrigation systems, canal renovations and new supplies that can make consumption more sustainable in the future.
He said that the past few years have revealed a disturbing trend: that even in years with close to average precipitation, the amount of runoff making it into reservoirs is dramatically down, suggesting a fundamental long-term change in the relationship between the snowpack in the mountains and how much water will make it through the drought-parched West.
“Now the thinking is: To get average inflows into the reservoirs — that would lead to an average operation — you actually have to have significantly higher-than-normal precipitation and snowpack,” he said.
“That’s a game changer,” he said.
And Biden says the special interests didn't win this one. We will never get there this way. -- blj
Why Sen. Sinema insisted $4B for drought relief be added to IRA
August 10, 2022, 12:25 PM
In exchange for supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., insisted that the legislation leave in place a tax loophole that benefits high earners in the private equity and real estate industries. That deal set off a flurry of media speculation about her motives, but it wasn’t the only successful request she made in order to secure her vote for the landmark climate legislation.
To properly address climate change, Sinema told her fellow Democrats, the bill needed to provide an extra $4 billion in funding for mitigating the effects of drought on her home state and the American West.
Unlike preserving the loophole that benefits wealthy campaign donors, the drought funding has resonated with local voters.
“I have not been a fan of some of the roadblocks that Sinema’s put up against the bill, but she came through in the end, and I think the addition of the drought money was extremely, badly needed and an extremely important part of making it a good bill,” Hazel Chandler, a Phoenix-based field coordinator for Moms Clean Air Force, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, told Yahoo News. “I’m really excited about it.”
A Senate aide told Bloomberg News that the funding would be used to secure private water rights and to help municipalities conserve water. The goal is to increase the level of water in the Colorado River system, on which Arizona relies for much of its water for homes and farming.
The funds will also go to aiding farmers who are contending with water supply problems by helping them find ways of maintaining crop yields with less water, KOLD News 13, a CBS television affiliate in Tucson, Ariz., reported.
“In Arizona, we know right now we are facing an unprecedented 1,200-year drought, so this legislation is going to allow us to help provide some compensation to farmers in the short term who may have to have their fields go fallow for a short period of time,” Sinema told the outlet.
The desert state has always been dry, but climate change and a growing population have made water scarcity a bigger problem. Hotter average temperatures, increased water evaporation and more extreme weather, including stronger heat waves, have plunged the Southwest into an ongoing drought since 2000. The last 20 years have been the driest two decades in the region in 1,200 years, according to research published earlier this year.
The last two years, which have been more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 Celsius) warmer than the historical average in the region, have been particularly dry. From January 2020 through August 2021, the Southwest received the lowest total precipitation and had the third-highest daily average temperatures of any 20-month period since 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Colorado River has been so diminished that last week the United Nations Environment Program warned that Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are both man-made reservoirs on the river, are at “dangerously low levels.”
“The conditions in the American West which we’re seeing around the Colorado River Basin have been so dry for more than 20 years that we’re no longer speaking of a drought,” Lis Mullin Bernhardt, an ecosystems expert at UNEP, said at the time. “We refer to it as ‘aridification’ — a new, very dry normal.”
In June, Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that maintaining “critical levels” at Lake Mead and Lake Powell will require large reductions in water deliveries.
“What has been a slow-motion train wreck for 20 years is accelerating, and the moment of reckoning is near,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said at the same Senate hearing.
Last year, California, Arizona and Nevada signed an agreement to take less water from Lake Mead, and in May the Department of Interior announced it is withholding some water that would have been taken from Lake Powell to prevent the reservoir from dropping so low that Glen Canyon Dam would not be able to generate electricity. (The lake is on the border of Arizona and Utah.)
“I drove to Lake Powell a year ago, and I was just appalled by what I saw,” Chandler said. “It used to be that the lake came clear up to the road for miles, and it was so beautiful, and the lake now looks like it’s miles away. The only place you find the lake against the road is at the dam.”
Sinema was not the only one pushing for the drought-relief funds. Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Michael Bennet of Colorado issued a joint statement announcing that the money had been secured in the legislation.
“The Western United States is experiencing an unprecedented drought, and it is essential that we have the resources we need to support our states’ efforts to combat climate change, conserve water resources, and protect the Colorado River Basin,” the senators said in a statement last Friday.
“In the Southwest, our biggest threat is not enough water — drought — and it’s taken a big toll on our state,” Chandler said. “It’s really concerning. This is our water supply. If we don’t pay attention to this, our children could be climate change refugees because they have no water.”
Whatever the Democratic Party’s disagreements over Sinema’s insistence on the carried-interest loophole, Chandler and Sinema agree on the imperative for Arizona to find new ways of using water more efficiently.
“Our job," Sinema told KOLD, "is to find ... innovative ways to reuse water, to be efficient with water and to find new ways to engage in farming to keep those yields while using less water.”