The Rundown

Colorado River drought conditions spur calls for better water infrastructure

By: - October 8, 2021 12:10 am

“We will experience unavoidable reductions in farm water supplies and hydropower generation, ecosystem degradation, and urban areas will need to conserve water,” a Dept. of Interior official told a Senate panel. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Experts in government, agriculture, water management and the environment stressed during a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday the danger that droughts fueled by climate change pose in the West, including the Colorado River Basin.

During a hearing before an Energy and Natural Resources Committee panel, witnesses said long-term solutions and an investment in water infrastructure are needed to combat the effects of climate change.

“Water has always been a limited resource in the West,” Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat who chaired the hearing of the Water and Power Subcommittee, said. “We have this old saying in Arizona that ‘whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.’”

He said that the issue is a priority for him because Arizona is on the front lines of a major drought, which can increase the risk of wildfires in the West.

Tanya Trujillo, the assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior, said that “water supply is below average.”

She said the federal government should continue to make investments in water infrastructure, and new technology such as water recycling and desalination systems that remove salt from salt water.

Kelly asked her how the Interior Department will use the $8.4 billion provided for the West in an infrastructure bill passed by the Senate.

Trujillo said that by replacing aging water infrastructure, water will be prevented from escaping, and that the bill also invests in technology that can capture water.

“We will experience unavoidable reductions in farm water supplies and hydropower generation, ecosystem degradation, and urban areas will need to conserve water,” she said, adding that Interior and its state and local partners “have planned for this by being proactive and fully using the tools we have.”

Tom Buschatzke, the director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that Arizona has been under a state of drought emergency since 1999.

“The past two decades of ongoing drought in the western United States, and in particular the Colorado River Basin, is challenging the seven Colorado River Basin states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, as well as the Republic of Mexico, to meet the needs of the 40 million people and millions of acres of farmland that rely on the river,” he said in his opening statement.

Several senators raised their concerns about water availability for farmers, such as Kelly and John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican.

Kelly asked what can be done immediately to help those farmers and ranchers.

Buschatzke said the state of Arizona has currently made $40 million available for farmers to maintain their infrastructure to help move and use their water supply.

Kelly had requested a Senate hearing on the drought conditions along the Colorado River after water level projections for Lake Mead and Lake Powell were released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Lake Mead, a reservoir of the Hoover Dam, hit its lowest levels since 1930.

In a letter to Water and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and the top Republican, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Kelly expressed his concern that the “U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued its first-ever drought shortage declaration for the Colorado River.”

“More than 40 million Americans rely on Colorado River water to support our cities, tribes, and farms,” he wrote. “As of today, total Colorado River system storage is 40% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.”

Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River Program Director at the National Audubon Society, said that 30 tribes also rely on the river.

“Climate change has come barging through the front doors of the Colorado basin,” Pitt said.

An August report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that for every 0.9 degree Fahrenheit the atmosphere warms, some regions will experience an increase in droughts, which can harm agriculture production and the ecosystem.

Droughts, exacerbated by climate change, will likely be more common by 2050, according to Yale Climate Connections, which is an initiative of the Yale Center for Environmental Communication.

As of late September, the National Integrated Drought Information System—part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—has determined that more than 40 percent of the U.S., and nearly 48 percent of the lower states, are in drought.

NIDIS flagged the Illinois-Wisconsin border as a new area of concern and the area where the border meets Lake Michigan as being in extreme drought.

However, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is predicting that “more than half the country, including parts of the West, are favored to have a warmer-than-average October, but for the first time in months, there’s no brown on the map out West, and even a little green. That means the odds of (a) much wetter than average month are as good as or better than the odds of a much drier than average month.”



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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.