September 19, 2022

Crisis on the Colorado

By Dennis Nuxoll, Gail Delihant and Robert Medler

Farmers throughout the West know it is dry this year and water supplies are sparse. Scientists who study such things tell us that the West is suffering through its most severe drought in more than 1,000 years. The Colorado River Basin, with its two historic dams, is not immune to this situation. Indeed, both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at critical junctures. Both reservoirs are near “deadpool” status—the point at which water can’t flow downstream. If both dams go below deadpool, not only will there be no water flowing downstream but electricity generation will cease, which will mean many parts of the West will return to the days of candlelight.

In Senate testimony during June, Camille Touton, the Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, highlighted just how dire the situation is for the region. She noted the severity of the drought and indicated immediate action was needed, saying that existing plans were not adequate to meet the challenges of the problem. During her testimony, the Commissioner reported that all Colorado River Basin states had been told to draw up voluntary plans to contribute toward conserving 2-4 million-acre feet of water to prevent the two reservoirs from hitting deadpool. Touton told the states she wanted agreements by mid-August or the federal government would step in.

Upon hearing this dramatic and unusual public push by the Bureau, Western Growers federal and state affairs teams engaged by contacting all our members who farm in the Colorado River Basin who are connected with water districts and have technical expertise on the topic. We needed to understand what plans were being contemplated and the challenges those plans might present, as well as what community impacts could arise in Arizona, California and Colorado. Since tension exists between the upper and lower basin, as well as between California and Arizona irrigation districts, WG staff has been focused on working with our members to form a unified position that we can push forward to state and federal authorities.

After tribes, farmers often have the oldest water rights in the West because they were among the first settlers to come to the area, occupy it and claim their water rights. This was long before cities developed or ski resorts and golf courses were built. In fact, agriculture has rights to, and uses, more than half the water in the Colorado River Basin. As such, it is clear agriculture water cuts would be seen as a primary vehicle to achieve cuts of the magnitude that the Bureau laid out. Farmers are being seen as the primary source for cuts, and our ag community wants to be compensated for water rights not used. Lost farm revenue, changes to the environment, including the Salton Sea, and the impact on communities if agriculture’s footprint shrinks continue to be part of the conversation.

After engaging across the Lower Basin, WG staff quickly realized that additional resources were going to be needed to address all these concerns. Western Growers reached out to our agricultural and water allies to push for more federal funds to address the immediate crisis. Western Growers worked with these same groups to secure money for Western water in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed last November. The $8 billion in funding that was secured in that bill was designed to finance projects in the medium- and long-term, not to help in this more immediate crisis.

Fortunately for us, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is from one of the most impacted states and is engaged on this issue. Sen. Sinema was able to work with other U.S. senators from Basin states, including fellow Arizonan Mark Kelly and Colorado’s Michael Bennet, to secure an additional $4 billion in funds to help with this immediate crisis. Will those funds solve all problems? No, but they are a critical element for the near-term. State governments also need to step forward to provide funding for short, medium and long-term needs.

Coordination within Arizona, especially among Colorado River communities, was quick to occur following Commissioner Touton’s comments. WG has engaged heavily with Yuma County growers and irrigation districts, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project. Working collaboratively, staff identified an outside agency to help the growing coalition in the Lower Basin to communicate the substantial economic harm water cuts will have to communities, as well as the need for fair compensation.

WG’s California staff has met with administration officials responsible for overseeing the Colorado River Basin and Salton Sea, as well as legislators and water agencies several times. There is universal understanding of the severity of the situation and the need to protect agriculture and communities, and to mitigate problems at the Salton Sea as less water flows into it.

Your Western Growers teams at the state and federal level view the effort to secure water in the face of ongoing drought as one of our most important priorities and we will continue to push at the state and federal levels.