Jeff Fuentes Gleghorn
The Colorado River Basin is drying up, but nobody can agree on how to start solving the problem. The Bureau of Reclamation, which is in charge of tracking water levels in the region, gave the seven states that rely on the Colorado River a deadline this year. Find a plan to reduce water consumption by 2 to 4 million foot-acres of water, or the government will place restrictions for them. That involves using about 15 percent less water than normal, a request that isn’t easy for the drought-stricken states experiencing record levels of growth. The states affected are Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Mexico – known as the Upper Basin states – and California, Nevada and Arizona – the Lower Basin states. Mexico also relies on the Colorado River, but the Bureau can only make demands according to a set of international water use treaties made in the early and mid 1900s.
Historically, Lower Basin states have made the largest cuts to water use. Agriculture uses about 70 percent of the water taken from the Colorado River Basin, particularly in regions like the Yuma Valley in Arizona and the Imperial Valley in California. Nevada has long been a leader in the push for water conservation. Over the last two decades, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has reduced water use by 26 percent even as they added 750,000 people to their service. “We have been clear-eyed and pragmatic about the realities of the situation confronting the river since the beginning,” said General Manager John Entsminger in a letter to the Department of the Interior on August 15. Entsminger testified to Congress in 2019 and again in June of 2022 about the seriousness of the threat to the Colorado River Basin.
Entsminger delivered a letter to the Department of the Interior on August 15th asking the federal government to step in and assist with water conservation negotiations, saying that “the last 62 days of negotiations have produced exactly nothing in terms of meaningful collective action to help forestall the looming crisis.” He went on to say that without federal leadership “the states have always wallowed.” Entsminger seemed to have pointed words for agriculture businesses in his letter, referring to “drought profiteers” at one point.
Entsminger is right. Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said it was “unacceptable” that Arizona must “continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed.” Meanwhile the Upper Basin states like Utah and Colorado typically do not use the full amount of water they are given, but say they are unwilling to reduce their water allowance to protect their opportunity to grow. Irrigation groups around Yuma, Arizona have said they would be willing to leave nearly 1 million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead, about half of what needs to be reduced, but only if they are paid around $1,500 per acre-foot of water. For comparison, the federal and state governments sell an acre-foot of water for $40 to $120, and even the private sector values an acre-foot at about $1,100 as of August 17.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, passed by Democrats on party lines and signed into law by President Biden on August 16th includes $4 billion for drought relief. The money will fund programs to address long-term drought impacts and prioritizes states in the Colorado River Basin. Some of that funding may be used to support farmers that choose not to grow crops in 2023, but that will not solve the problems faced by the Colorado River Basin in the long term. The money needs to go to programs like the ones pioneered by Nevada, or else we will be revisiting this issue once the $4 billion runs out.