Jul 11, 2022 | Priority Issues

Drought Emergency on the Colorado River

colorado river

Tensions intensify as immediate & long-term solutions are sought

The Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) last month issued a call to the public for assistance in developing future long-term operating provisions on the Colorado River. This announcement came within days of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton’s message to a Senate Committee that the seven states of the Colorado River Basin must come up with an emergency deal by mid-August to conserve between 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water in the next year in order to protect the entire Colorado River system. 

Short Term Response Needed

“Despite the actions taken by the Department and Reclamation, significant and additional conservation actions are required to protect the Colorado River system infrastructure and the long-term stability of the system,” Commissioner Touton said in her testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee drought hearing last month. 

She told the Committee that shortages on the Colorado River system need between 2 million-to-4-million-acre feet of reduction in water use needed by 2023 just to keep Lake Mead functioning and physically capable of delivering drinking water, irrigation and power to millions of people.

“The science of the system across the West and especially in the Colorado River basin indicate one of immediate action,” she said. “But in the Colorado River basin, more conservation and demand management are needed in addition to the actions already underway.”

During the hearing, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, acknowledged the severity of the drought, but spoke to the dangers of diverting water away from agricultural uses in Wyoming. 

“Extreme drought is a concern to all Westerners, but especially to small rural farming and ranching communities in Wyoming,” Barrasso said. “Reducing the use of water doesn’t just put ranchers and farmers out of work, it increases the cost of food.” 

Wyoming rancher and Family Farm Alliance President Patrick O’Toole told the Senate committee that farmers and ranchers are always the first ones asked to make sacrifices. 

“Here’s the reality … we’re in an unprecedented situation,” O’Toole said during the hearing. “We’re about to do with agriculture what we did with manufacturing, let it go overseas. We cannot give up our production to the Third World.” 

Senate Hearing Aftermath

Since Commissioner Touton’s announcement at the Senate hearing, there’s been a flurry of forums and meetings of agriculture landowners and organizations in the Imperial Valley and Yuma to discuss the crisis and how to respond to it. 

Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and other districts – as well as groups of individual producers and local commodity associations – are meeting regularly to assess how to respond to the Commissioner’s call to action. A local meeting hosted by Yuma agricultural water users drew several hundred people to see a presentation on one proposal that asks for several billion dollars to be paid in a large-scale fallowing program that could take hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland out of production. 

Concerns of Lower Basin Water Users 

Farmers along the Lower Colorado River in Southern Arizona and Southern California are bracing for severe reductions next year in their river water supplies — cuts they say could lead to widespread crop production cutbacks, major economic dislocation and, possibly, food shortages. 

CLICK HERE for “Lower Colorado River Farmers Fear Economic Calamity from Water Cuts” by Tony Davis, which was published by Tucson.com on July 9. 

Bart Fisher, a governing board member for the Palo Verde Irrigation District, outside Blythe, California, noted the district already agreed in 2021 to fallow up to 19,461 of its 94,000 acres for three years starting this year, in return for $38 million in compensation from state and federal agencies.

“Then, if they come and say we need significantly more fallowing, what’s left to farm? What about our farmworkers? What about rural communities? When people don’t have employment, they are going to find employment somewhere else. We don’t want to be depopulated,” Mr. Fisher said.

Upper Basin Concerns

Colorado’s water leaders have released an updated blueprint detailing how the state will manage and conserve water supplies as climate change and population growth strain the system in unprecedented ways.

However, Colorado has no plans to make additional cuts to water use next year to meet the Bureau of Reclamation’s demand to conserve millions of acre-feet of water. 

Instead, Colorado officials insist that other states should do the cutting. 

“I think that at this point, we stand ready to hear what the Lower Basin has in mind,” said Amy Ostdiek, a section chief with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.  

Ms. Ostdiek told the Colorado Springs Gazette the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — dramatically reduced their water use in 2021 because of drought conditions. Specifically, they cut 1 million acre-feet in use in 2021 compared with 2020, bringing it down to 3.5 million acre-feet. But, at the same time, total water use in the Lower Basin has not been cut enough to preserve levels in the lakes, said Ms. Ostdiek.  

“The most impactful thing we can do is live within the means of the river,” she said. 

Wyoming’s role in the effort to address short-term emergency concerns on the Colorado River is discussed further in this July 8 article published in the Cowboy State Daily.  Alliance President O’Toole – who was recently inducted into the Wyoming Agriculture Hall of Fame, along with his wife Sharon – is quoted in this article. 

Reclamation Seeks Input on Long-Term Operating Guidelines

While the short-term actions are front and center, Reclamation does not want to put the 2026 long-term needs on the back burner. 

“As we focus on these short-term response actions, we also clearly recognize the importance of simultaneously planning for the longer-term to stabilize our reservoirs before we face an even larger crisis,” Commissioner Touton said after the hearing. 

The Bureau of Reclamation published a Federal Register notice on June 24 to assist in its efforts to develop future Colorado River operating provisions. The notice seeks specific input on how to foster meaningful participation by all stakeholders in preparation for beginning the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to develop post-2026 operating approaches for the Colorado River, and operating strategies to address post-2026.

To help explain the process and answer questions, Reclamation is hosting two webinars on July 12 and July 14, each beginning at 10:00 a.m. (MDT).  The public input period ends September 1, 2022.  CLICK HERE to learn more about the operations on the Colorado River. 

Family Farm Alliance Engagement

The Family Farm Alliance board of directors on March 11 formally adopted a policy brief that sets forth Colorado River principles developed in collaboration with several key agricultural interests. 

“We have helped organize a group of Basin agricultural water users from the headwaters to the Mexican border to come together to present key principles and expectations that are critical to sustainable and durable operation of the Colorado River into the future,” said Alliance Executive Director Dan Keppen. “We believe this group can play a major role as the seven Colorado River Basin States and Basin stakeholders engage to replace the 2007 Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead.”

The Interim Guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The Alliance policy brief urges Colorado River Compact decision-makers to incorporate 8 principles into new operating guidelines.

1. Recognize that Western irrigated agriculture is a strategic and irreplaceable national resource.

2. Provide certainty to all users and interests with Compact equitable apportionment decisions made from a foundation of common sense and fairness.

3. Address critical data gaps to facilitate the trust needed to make fair operational and legal decisions related to the next set of Interim Guidelines.

4. Manage Lake Mead to provide the Lower Basin’s share of the Colorado River Compact water to Lower Basin users. Manage Lake Powell to meet both the Colorado Compact obligations to the Lower Basin and protect the Upper Colorado River Compact entitlement of the four Upper Basin states.

5. Expand water supply augmentation opportunities as options for meeting growing water demands, at a time when River supplies appear to be diminishing.

6. Emphasize that future urban growth cannot be encouraged without locking in sustainable and diverse water supplies.

7. Recognize and address the impacts of drought and Colorado River management on Federal hydropower, its customers and related programs, and the resiliency of the power grid.

8. Include substantive measures to minimize and mitigate any anticipated negative economic, environmental and cultural impacts to rural communities due to reduced irrigated agriculture and more efficient irrigation practices.

The Alliance policy brief has already been adopted by IID, Palo Verde Irrigation District, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Yuma County Ag Water Coalition, Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation & Drainage District, Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District and the Maricopa Stanfield Irrigation and Drainage District. Other agricultural water districts throughout the Colorado River Basin are also considering adopting the policy brief. 

“We believe that the myriad of diverse Colorado River Basin interests can and will successfully work through future droughts and water shortages in a collaborative and effective way,” said Alliance President O’Toole. “The future of millions of people in urban areas, millions of acres of farms and ranches and the food and fiber they produce, and the many rural communities that dot the landscape in the Basin rest on this belief.”