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Bureau of Reclamation to receive $4 billion to combat drought in Colorado River Basin

Funding will incentivize water-reduction efforts
Water is released into the Colorado River at the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Ariz., in 2012. By the end of 2022, Lake Powell is expected to be 22% full, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. (Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via AP, file)

As a prolonged drought takes its toll on the Colorado River, states that make up the Colorado River Basin will receive $4 billion for drought mitigation efforts.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, along with Sens. Mark Kelly and Catherine Cortez Masto, announced $4 billion in spending has been added to the Inflation Reduction Act. The $4 billion is new funding in addition to the $369 billion for addressing the climate crisis that was included in the Inflation Reduction Act and was announced Friday by the senators.

“For me, it was really important that the language be written so that the $4 billion could be used to compensate all water users for voluntary multiyear reductions in real water use, and I didn’t want this just to be a paper shuffle,” Bennet told The Durango Herald. “I wanted there to be, at the end, a real reduction in water use.”

According to the bill text, the money will go to “voluntary system conservation projects that achieve verifiable reductions in use of or demand for water supplies or provide environmental benefits in the Lower Basin or Upper Basin of the Colorado River” over the course of the next four years and can go to states, local agencies and tribes over the next four years.

Examples include funding conservation programs, paying farmers for their water rights or providing compensation for other types of voluntary water reductions in the Colorado River Basin. Statewide and in Southwest Colorado, severe drought persists despite a recent abundance of rainfall in the region.

“In the end, I think the job of the federal government here is not to dictate what the outcome should be on the Colorado River,” Bennet said. “It’s for the states to come to an agreement and hopefully reach a consensus and then the federal government in the years ahead backstop and consensus with further funding.”

Earlier this summer, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton called on the states of the Colorado River Basin to make an emergency plan to use less water, or the Bureau would decide how to do so itself. In response to that, water commissioners from Colorado and other Upper Basin states submitted a proposal for how to reduce their water usage from the river. The submitted plans did not include water usage cuts in the Upper Basin.

The $4 billion will go to the Bureau of Reclamation for fighting drought with priority given to states in the Colorado River Basin. Forty million people rely on the Colorado Water System, with 4 million people in Colorado being affected by drought and 80% of Coloradans getting their water from the Colorado River.

Bennet had previously told reporters he wouldn’t vote for a version of the bill that did not include funding for drought relief. In his interview with the Herald after the funding was announced, he said getting the funding is an “important down payment” to help the Colorado River survive.

“I wouldn’t have voted for (the Inflation Reduction Act) if it harmed the Upper Basin or Colorado,” he said. “Colorado and the entire American West is facing a severe 22-year-long drought driven by climate change. The West has not been this dry in 1,200 years and the Colorado River is in crisis.”

Drought and wildfire go hand and hand, with droughts creating the ideal conditions for wildfire, with a lack of rain drying out vegetation and trees. Given the relationship between extreme drought and wildfires, Bennet said he’ll continue to come back and fight for more forestry money, and emphasized what he said was an “unprecedented amount” of funding this provides for Coloradans facing these issues.

The Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act on Sunday, and the House of Representatives is expected to pass it later this week.

Bennet said not all of his colleagues in the Senate are familiar with the effects of climate change in the West, but they are seeing how dire the situation is.

“I do think it was jarring last year when the smoke from California reached the East Coast and people in New York and Washington, D.C., started to smell that smoke,” he said. “And I think, tragically, the picture of families burned out of their houses as we were in Colorado … and seeing that on the nightly news is also catching people’s attention, and we just are going to have to keep pushing.”

In 2000, Lake Mead and Lake Powell were 95% full. By the end of 2022, Lake Mead is expected to be 27% full, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. For Lake Powell, the amount comes in at 22%.

Nina Heller is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at nheller@durangoherald.com.

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