By Zayna Syed
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema introduced a new water advisory council at Hoover Dam on Monday to discuss how to spend $4 billion in water and drought aid included in the Inflation Reduction Act.
The $4 billion is meant to stave off the worst effects of drought across the Colorado River system, which is suffering from overuse and two decades of drought exacerbated by climate change.
The effects of the drought were clear Monday as Sinema and regional water officials met at Lake Mead, which sits at just over one-quarter capacity, the same as the upstream Lake Powell. Federal water officials are expected to release projections next week that could lead to new restrictions on water use among the seven states that rely on the river.
Advisory council members said Monday they hope the new funds, which will be administered over the next four years by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, will assist in both a short-term “glide path” to ease the burden of water cuts in the next four to five years, and a long-term sustainable future.
In late June, the Arizona Legislature approved a $1 billion plan to find ways of augmenting the state’s water supplies and encourage further conservation.
Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and a member of the advisory council, said that legislative package represented the biggest investment in the state’s water management since the 1980 Groundwater Management Act.
“It’s a perfect time, the bipartisan bill and the latest legislation. It just all came together, not surprisingly at this point in time, given all the challenges we’re facing in the near term,” Buschatzke said.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, talk during a tour of Hoover Dam on the Arizona/Nevada border, Aug. 8, 2022.
Arizona has significantly reduced the amount of water it takes from the river as lower water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell trigger cutbacks. Farmers in Pinal County lost almost all of their river allocations on Jan. 1 and have been forced to leave fields unplanted or find other water sources.
Even so, the federal government has told the seven states to reduce water consumption even more in an attempt to protect long-term supplies.
Short-term aid, long-term investment
Sinema, D-Ariz., leveraged her swing vote in the evenly divided Senate to secure the $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed Sunday. Sinema said she asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for $5 billion initially and received $4 billion, to be spent across the Colorado River Basin.
“I reached out to my colleagues, particularly Sen. Schumer and Sen. (Joe) Manchin, and said that this was a critical part of any completed negotiation, and that it was a requirement for me to participate,” she said in an interview with The Arizona Republic.
Sinema expects the bill to pass the House on Friday and for President Joe Biden to sign it into law this weekend.
The drought aid was negotiated in part by lawmakers in three of the Colorado River Basin states. Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, along with Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett, all Democrats, reached an agreement Friday to include the funds in the bill.
“It is essential that we have the resources to support our states’ efforts to combat climate change, conserve water resources, and protect the Colorado River Basin,” Kelly said in a statement.
Sinema met Monday with a handful of members of the water advisory council in a conference room at Hoover Dam. The windows provided an up-close view of Lake Mead’s “bathtub ring,” the bands of white canyon walls along the perimeter of the giant reservoir that document the declining water levels and offer a blunt reminder of the growing urgency.
Hoover Dam (top right) and Lake Mead on May 11, 2021, on the Arizona and Nevada border. A high-water mark or bathtub ring is visible on the shoreline. Lake Mead is down 152 vertical feet.
In the short term, officials say, some of the money will be spent on paying farmers, in particular in Yuma County and southern California, to use less water from the Colorado River. The farmers there grow most of the country’s lettuce and other vegetables during the winter months of the year.
“In order to meet our immediate water needs, we have to work together with agriculture and those who hold water rights in Arizona, to ask them not to use their water,” Sinema said. “That does two things: One, it frees up water for other uses in the state. And two, it allows those lands to lay fallow, which allows them to become more enriched, so that when you do use them again for agricultural purposes, they’re more mineral rich already.”
Arizona water managers have also urged California to cut back on its water use.
“The four billion may not be enough ultimately to do all the things that we need to do, but it’s a terrific start,” said Ted Cooke, general manager of the Central Arizona Project and an advisory council member. “The best mix between short-term conservation, and I almost want to call it permanent — it’s a dangerous word in our industry — but permanent reductions in use,” he started to say.
“Sustainable,” Sinema interjected. “We’re also thinking long term, how do we change the way we use water through reuse, efficiencies, recycling, new supply, etc. so that it’s not a permanent reduction, it’s just that we’re using water differently, so we need less.”
Easy steps have been taken
Long-term solutions might re-envision approaches by water users in the state, in particular agriculture, which uses about 74% of the state’s water.
“I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of the obvious, low hanging fruit are already harvested,” said Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy and another member of the advisory council, said. “So there isn’t a huge amount. There’s not an efficiency fix. Yeah, we can get into some things, but it’s going to be people not having water to use that they’ve had for decades with that. That’s why it’s so hard.”
Porter cautioned that farmers should strive for longer-term solutions, like switching the type of crops they grow, instead of relying on short-term payoffs.
“It took a very special situation for Sen. Sinema to be able to ask for that and get it,” Porter said. “It’s extraordinary, because there’s all this desire to pass legislation, at least on the part of one party, and she happened to be in a position of being able to ask for something in exchange for her vote. That doesn’t happen very often.”
The advisory council consists of 21 stakeholders, including representatives from agriculture, utilities, conservation groups, water officials, tribes and academic experts. Sinema said her water policy team will meet with the group each quarter.