Federal investments are needed to address drought in the West
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Climate change has come barging through the front doors of the Colorado River Basin. That’s what I told a Senate subcommittee this month while discussing drought in the West and how climate change is affecting the Colorado River.

The Colorado River has lost 20 percent of its historic flows in the past 20 years, and scientists forecast another 9 percent loss with every degree of warming. We need to act quickly to avoid a catastrophic water supply crisis; we also need long-term solutions because as temperatures continue to increase, the Colorado River’s water supply will keep shrinking. 

There is so much at stake: the Colorado provides drinking water to 40 million people; it is the lifeblood for 30 federally recognized tribes and supports a trillion-dollar economy. If you eat a salad in January anywhere in this country, your lettuce was grown with its water.

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The rivers of the Colorado Basin are beloved, supporting recreation businesses in rural counties. These rivers are the region’s soul, habitats that support birds, fish and other wildlife. People value the Colorado River in so many ways, not least for what it means to us culturally and spiritually. Stand on the river’s edge, and you are reminded what it means to be grateful.

In passing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Senate has set the stage for important investments to address the impacts of drought and climate change, but more is needed:

  • Emergency drought funding is needed to respond to the historic drought conditions affecting tens of millions of Americans. For example, the Bureau of Reclamation last month entered into an emergency partnership with the Palo Verde Irrigation District in California, which holds senior water rights to the Colorado River, to fallow thousands of acres over three years which will contribute conserved water to the larger system. 
  • Investments will also scale up proven strategies, discussed in a new report, including natural infrastructure, irrigation efficiency upgrades, water recycling and reuse, and forest management, that will improve the water supply and the basin’s resilience to climate change. 

 

  • Federal investment in U.S. Geological Survey monitoring and stream gages is needed so we have data that allows us to understand these unprecedented changes.
  • Reclamation’s binational program needs additional funding. Operating under the 1944 Colorado River Treaty with Mexico, the program is conserving water in Lake Mead and improving downstream riparian habitats. 
  • Investments will help mitigate the environmental and public health crisis caused by the receding shoreline of California’s Salton Sea and other saline lakes across the West.
  • Funds are badly needed to support Colorado River Basin tribes, particularly those with households lacking indoor water service, who suffered greatly from COVID-19. Funds are also needed for tribal water settlements to allow tribes to benefit from their water rights and to reduce the uncertainty that unsettled rights impose on all Colorado River water users. 

In order to reach these goals, federal leadership must continue emphasizing commitment to collaboration and promoting the creative thinking that has characterized the Colorado River Basin. For example, the Bureau of Reclamation plays important roles as a convener, a process that needs to be transparent and inclusive for reservoir operations affecting the entire Basin, carrying out the federal trust responsibility with tribes, and as a science provider. 

This is a sobering and scary time for everyone and everything that depends on the Colorado River. Audubon supports increasing federal investments for the Colorado River Basin and across the West through the IIJA and budget reconciliation. Federal agencies must receive critically needed resources to build a more resilient system and mitigate the effects of climate change. It is imperative our communities have the resources they need to prepare for and respond to the drought and climate crisis that touches every living thing.

Jennifer Pitt is the Colorado River Program Director for the National Audubon Society.