Desert Sun: Senators add $4 billion for Colorado River drought relief into Inflation Reduction Act

By Janet Wilson

The massive climate and healthcare package that passed Sunday in the Senate includes $4 billion to help shore up the rapidly dwindling Colorado River and its massive reservoirs.

California officials who are pushing to meet an August deadline for huge water savings in Lake Mead and Lake Powell praised the bill’s passage.

The funds, to be administered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over the next four years, could be used to pay farmers, rural districts and others to fallow crops and install efficient watering technology, or to pay for other voluntary water reductions in the Lower and Upper Basins, which combined provide drinking water and irrigation to nearly 40 million people across seven states and Mexico. 

That could be a crucial piece of intense negotiations between the states and federal government about how to best meet a mandate from Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton to figure out by mid-August how to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is enough to supply one to two households with water for a year. Officials with two powerful southern California agencies — the Imperial Irrigation District serving rural farmers and the Metropolitan Water District serving greater Los Angeles — are haggling over 400,000 acre-feet in possible reductions, as reported Thursday by The Desert Sun.

Lawn removal could also qualify for rebates, and habitat restoration projects to address issues directly caused by drought, such as continued losses to the Salton Sea, would also be funded.

 “The bill … includes billions of dollars that I helped secure to address catastrophic wildfires and historic drought in the West – with priority given to the Colorado River Basin and inland water bodies like the Salton Sea,” said U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California in a statement.

In a statement announcing the deal on Thursday, U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada,  said: “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. This funding in the Inflation Reduction Act will serve as an important resource for Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, and the work we’ve done to include it will help secure the West’s water future.” All three senators are up for re-election this November.

Although not mentioned in that announcement, California would also likely receive a major portion of the drought funds.

On Sunday, U.S. Senator Feinstein, D-California, said in a statement, “This language, which my staff negotiated with Senators Kelly,  Sen. (Krysten) Sinema (D-Arizona) and others, will help ensure that critical water deliveries from the Colorado River continue as the state expands sustainable water practices like water recycling and conservation.

The bill will also fund water infrastructure modernization projects as well as projects to reduce harmful effects of drought on rivers and inland water bodies like the Salton Sea.”

She added, “This is just one step to help fight this dangerous drought, but it’s an important one.”

Feinstein spokesman Tom Mentzer said while farmers across the West and the state could benefit, the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds by far the state’s largest rights to Colorado River water, and its farmer customers “would be eligible for significant funding from the $4 billion drought provision. 

Growers there would receive compensation for voluntarily reducing planting and irrigating some crops. Farmers in the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley and the Klamath could also receive assistance for fallowing a portion of their land. That could help California farmers planning for drought or compliance with the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, complementing a similar state program in the San Joaquin Valley.

A key IID official also said the funds and the recognition of the Colorado River crisis are welcome.

“The fact that Congress recognizes the ongoing Colorado River drought is a big deal, and the funding will go a long way to address what’s a national issue,” said JB Hamby, an IID board member who also serves on California’s Colorado River Board. “It gives Reclamation, the basin states and water users the resources to tackle this big problem head on.”

Funds are also included for urban and agricultural water efficiency projects, including replacing thirsty lawns with drought resilient landscaping, and rural measures like canal lining and leveling of drainage ditches.

Other funding is earmarked for restoration projects that help remediate effects of wind-blown dust, which along the fast-drying Salton Sea contributes to sharply higher asthma rates and other health concerns. The less water that is piped to Imperial Valley farms and runs off into the inland water body, the more the lakebed is exposed. Chinook salmon, an endangered species that has been severely imperiled by recent droughts could also see habitat restoration funds.

Salton Sea Authority Pres. Louis Plancarte applauded the news. “Our disadvantaged and tribal communities have paid with their lives and livelihoods for past state-imposed water cuts to our region. He added, “There is simply no doubt that, without assured federal mitigation funding, the much more sizable federal cuts now under active consideration will decimate public health in our region. I commend our Congressional delegation for their strong leadership in moving this essential legislation forward.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom also praised the deal: “This funding is critical to stabilize the Colorado River system and accelerate projects at the Salton Sea to protect public health and the environment. Thanks to our California senators for working with us on this priority and helping to lead the charge on this essential investment.”

If the huge climate and healthcare package passes the House and is signed by President Joe Biden, who strongly supports it, many details would need to be worked out about how the drought funds would be distributed and in what amount.

How much will go to farmers?

Farmers in the Yuma, Arizona, area have sought $1,500 per acre-foot of water conserved, while the Imperial Valley Farm Bureau requested $2,300 per acre-foot. Water agency officials have said the amount per acre-foot would likely be lower. 

But the funding is exactly the sort of massive boost that IID, regional farm bureaus and other organizations say is critical to both keep Lake Mead and Lake Powell afloat, and to compensate growers who could suffer serious economic impacts if they were forced to stop planting, processing and shipping major crops across the Southwest.

IID alone holds by far the largest and among the oldest water rights in California. Hamby said he tracked the progress of the drought funding all day Friday on media outlets and with district lobbyists, after Politico first reported that Sinema had made it a condition of her vote for the package.

“First it was $5 billion, then Manchin supposedly cut it to $1 billion, then it popped back up to $4 billion,” he said.

In a letter to its directors and advisors, Family Farm Bureau Executive Director Dan Keppen, who pushed hard for drought relief funds across the West, wrote: “Well, the sausage making is wrapped up, and an agreement has been reached on Western Drought provisions that will be proposed for inclusion in the Democrats’ ‘Inflation Reduction Act.’ “

He said the final language was “a far cry from what we were advocating for,” which had included $5 billion and block grant assistance for community impacts, as well as “West-wide” assistance, but said their coalition had done “a hell of a job.”

He added: “Finding ways to best influence the best ways that Reclamation can implement these dollars will be a key priority for the next four years.”

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