The Bureau of Reclamation has reached out to agriculture interests in the West as the agency considers how to spend the $4 billion earmarked in the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act for bolstering water-saving efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other drought-stricken areas.
The funding is the result of a last-minute push by lawmakers to equip Reclamation with short-term resources to resolve tense negotiations between states over future Colorado River water cuts, supplementing $8.3 billion in bipartisan infrastructure law funding the agency received last year.
The bill requires Reclamation to prioritize Colorado River Basin and other regions suffering from the impacts of long-term drought when distributing the funding.
The bureau held meetings with agricultural interests last week to collect ideas for how to use the $4 billion, but Family Farm Alliance Executive Director Daniel Keppen said the agency emphasized that it was still familiarizing itself with the bill’s language and did not have a clear plan for how the money would be spent.
Keppen thinks the funding makes it less likely the agency will impose water usage cuts in the Colorado River Basin, since it now has more resources to broker voluntary water reduction agreements.
“You’ve got a lot more dollars out there now, which provides opportunities to make some of these voluntary transactions more realistic,” Keppen said.
Linda Friar, Reclamation's deputy chief of public affairs, told Agri-Pulse in an email, "We are working on a spend plan and a thoughtful path forward. Part of that planning effort includes reviewing the law and any specific guidance in the law."
Nine agricultural groups, including the Family Farm Alliance and the Western Growers Association, sent a letter to Democratic Senate leaders on July 29 that urged them to include “billions of dollars” in the Inflation Reduction Act to compensate Western water users for voluntary cutbacks.
“We knew that the amount of resources that the bureau had access to was limited,” said Dennis Nuxoll, the vice president of federal government affairs for Western Growers. “We also knew that the bipartisan infrastructure money was meant for medium and long-term problems. Additional resources needed to be brought to the table.”
Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla of California added $4 billion for drought funding to the bill on Aug. 5 after striking a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. The funding was critical to securing Sinema’s support, which Democrats needed to push the legislation through the 50-50 Senate.
President Joe Biden signed the measure into law on Aug. 16.
Under the bill, the $4 billion can be used to compensate water users for making voluntary reductions, fund urban and agricultural water conservation projects and support ecosystem restoration projects that address drought-fueled problems in river basins or inland water bodies.
In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton called for states to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to preserve operations on Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The states failed to submit a plan to Reclamation by an Aug. 15 deadline, but water resource officials in California confirmed that states are still involved with conversations over potential reductions.
The funding would give Reclamation an additional bargaining chip to use with Colorado River Basin states, allowing the agency to meet some of the demands that have previously been brought to the negotiating table.
California's Imperial Irrigation District, for example, has demanded funding for habitat restoration projects on the rapidly deteriorating Salton Sea as a condition for taking more cuts. As the heavily polluted lake dries up, previously unexposed sediment is carried across the Imperial Valley by strong winds. This dust has increased asthma rates throughout the region, a trend that could only worsen if more of the lakebed is exposed.
“We can’t get stuck with that responsibility,” said JB Hamby, who serves on the Imperial Irrigation District’s board of directors. “We need the state of California and the federal government to assume responsibility for mitigating any of the impacts that are felt on the Salton Sea as a result of our participation.”
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The money could also be used to compensate farmers for voluntarily reducing their water use, which could be done through fallowing land or planting less water-intensive crops. The Yuma County Agriculture Water Coalition, an alliance of water districts in Arizona's Yuma County, proposed a third option to Reclamation last week: pay farmers for conserving 1 acre-foot of water on each acre of their land for four years.
The coalition’s proposal has the support of farmers who represent 185,000 acres of land in Yuma County, though it wants to see a program that spans all 925,000 acres of farmland in the lower basin states. But Wade Noble, the coalition’s coordinator, said Reclamation was “less than enthusiastic” about the $1,500 per acre-foot payment the group suggested as compensation.
“This is not a proposal for us to stop farming,” Noble said. “This is a proposal for us to use less water to grow the same crops that we’re providing now.”
The four Upper Colorado River Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada — have also been working on an agreement with Reclamation to use some of the money for system conservation, according to Chuck Cullom, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
But Hamby, a director for the Imperial Irrigation District, warned that the funding may not be enough to convince states to take voluntary cuts. Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke, for example, criticized Reclamation’s push for voluntary agreements in a press call last week, saying he’d like to see the agency focus more on mandatory reductions.
“That doesn’t work for us,” Buschatzke said about the voluntary approach. “We want to see an outcome in which there is 100% certainty that whatever the numbers are that are put out there, those numbers are going to actually happen.”
Cortez Masto, who helped secure the $4 billion drought provision, is pressing Reclamation to craft a plan for the money within 90 days. On Monday, she called for the agency to only distribute money to Colorado River states that implement comprehensive conservation actions.
“I’ve led efforts in Congress to get Nevada the resources it needs to combat drought, and we’re leading the way in water conservation,” Cortez Masto said. “But this administration urgently needs to take a stronger role in ensuring that all states along the Colorado River take the actions that Nevada already has, so that all states along the Colorado River Basin are contributing their fair share to addressing this crisis.”
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