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How recent legislation is supporting drought resilience in the Colorado River Basin (Part 2)

Ariel Brenner

Shrinking Water Level in Lake Mead. Source: Shutterstock

Part 1 of this post described the current state and outlook for the drought in the Colorado River Basin, which, without ambitious mitigative action, will become increasingly grim. Part 1 also outlined the recent strides that the Biden administration has made, in coordination with the states and entities who rely on the Colorado, to alleviate the effects of the diminishing water supply – this included the institution of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) in 2019.

These latest developments build on a century’s worth of efforts to manage and moderate the use of the Colorado’s water. In 1922, states entered into the Colorado River Compact, which established annual water allocations for the Upper and Lower Basins. In 1944, the U.S. also committed to sending water from the Colorado to Mexico. These agreements still govern how participating states operate, but their efforts to moderate use have proven insufficient to meet exacerbated drought challenges.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed this summer offers hope of reducing the harm and hardship that this drought is predicted to induce. The bill includes $4 billion in funding for management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas. Part of this will be directed toward the Interior Department’s newly-created Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program, which will help to increase and improve the system’s water conservation and efficiency. Most recently, the BOR announced its intent to use IRA funding to accelerate restoration of California’s Salton Sea in the Lower Basin.

These and other IRA activities build on the progress that the BOR has made using the $8.3 billion from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to address water and drought challenges through rural water projects, aging infrastructure upgrades, water recycling and reuse, securing of dams, aquatic ecosystems protection, and others. In July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) – which received $17.1 billion in IIJA funding for water resource infrastructure projects and support – also announced its intent to strengthen its ongoing efforts in the Colorado River Basin by funding a reclaimed water pipeline in Arizona, a non-potable water distribution system for the Pascua Yaqui Reservation, and a brackish water desalination plant in southern California that will reduce its reliance on the Colorado River.

The agriculture industry in particular will continue to experience these changes in full force. More than three-quarters of the Colorado’s water is used for agriculture, while cities use about 20 percent. Nearly 700,000 acres in California meant for growing tomatoes, melons, rice, and alfalfa are expected to be left fallow this year. Arizona – which took the largest cut under the DCP at 21 percent of its usual allotment – decreased water deliveries to the Central Arizona Project, a major agricultural center and water delivery system serving over 80 percent of the state’s population. Many are hoping that some of the IRA’s $4 billion for drought mitigation will be used to compensate farmers who are withholding from planting crops or reducing their water usage.

The conservation efforts supported by recent legislation have been instrumental in beginning to undo provisions that, a century ago, laid the groundwork for some of the most unsustainable practices shaping the Basin today. Notably, the 1922 Colorado River Compact instructed states to utilize water allocations in full or else face cuts the following year, consequently spawning a “use it or lose it” system that incentivized introducing water-intensive crops into the desert to fulfill allotments. New programs will instead support minimizing water use; in Yuma County, Arizona, for example, irrigation districts have proposed paying farmers hundreds of dollars for each acre-foot of water over 925,000 that remains unutilized.

If anything, these recent developments represent a meaningful philosophical shift regarding how the Colorado is managed. The surge of new resources, expertise, and activities concentrated in the Basin is building an encouraging foundation for a more sustainable and collaborative future there.

Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.

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