A proposed deal for California, Arizona and Nevada to take less water from the overexploited Colorado River relies heavily on $1.2 billion in federal funds, which would pay farmers and others alike. intend to give up some of their supplies over the next three years.
But the federal injection of money, implemented through the Inflation Reduction Act, will only facilitate temporary cuts. More reductions will be needed in the coming years, experts say, to close the gap between water supply and demand, and to adapt to descending flow due to climate change.
The agreement, which has yet to be ratified, offers an interim solution to prevent reservoirs from reaching extremely low levels, and poses difficult questions for the region’s water managers to solve. they negotiate a long-term plan to reduce usage after 2026.
“We have a terrible problem to solve,” said Mark Gold, director of water scarcity solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The states are taking in more water than the river is.”
Under the agreement announced this week, the three states pledge to reduce water use 3 million acres between now and the end of 2026 — an average of 1 million acres per year.
Federal officials, who will be analyzing the proposal, have considered options that involve reducing more than 2 million acres per year, which would reduce water use in the three states by about 29%.
But with heavy snow covering the Rocky Mountains and reservoirs set to increase, officials representing water agencies have proposed smaller cuts that they calculate will be sufficient through 2026, when agreements are reached. proposed agreement expires.
Gold urged the Biden administration to make larger cuts.
“The Colorado River Basin is in crisis,” he said.
If federal officials accept proposals from the states, he said, that would delay key decisions on long-term cuts until tougher negotiations over the plan next year. 2026.
Another concern, Gold said, is that the states’ proposal would spend more than $1 billion on temporary cuts, largely by paying farmland owners to fallow fields, rather than fallow fields. invest in long-term water-saving solutions in farms and cities.
“Federal infrastructure money should not simply compensate agribusinesses that fallow some of their land, an act of fleeting conservation benefit,” Gold said. , with all the money benefiting the landowner and none benefiting the farmers and communities that will be affected,” Gold said. “A better approach would be to use federal infrastructure money to support lasting improvements that lead to urban water saving and sustainable agriculture.”
Gold said such actions could include requiring more efficient irrigation systems for agriculture, converting grass into native landscapes in cities and building water recycling facilities.
Gold and other experts call the proposed deal a Bandage for a long-term problem.
Newsha Ajami, director of research development in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said federal money to support fallow farmland functions “like a dose of medicine.” analgesic”.
“That helps us reduce the pain we go through when some people don’t use their water, but is it a permanent change? Not really,” said Ajami. “Does it solve our problem? Not really. You’re just throwing the can in the street, hoping for the best.
David Zilberman, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley, said paying farmers to save water might make political sense, but the $1.2 billion would be better spent on water projects to help states become permanently less dependent on the Colorado River.
“My feeling is, if you really want to solve the water problem and you have the money, use it to increase our resources,” Zilberman said.
That could include investments in water recycling and desalination, he said, as well as efforts to improve drainage systems, treat contaminated water and improve the quality of aquifers.
“This is the time to leverage our creativity, imagination and technology to fully manage our plumbing,” says Zilberman. “It’s like when it comes to a house — when you remodel, it’s better to completely remodel than fix a few spots, and in the meantime all the contractors and everyone else earns. money. We can develop a system that will actually be better for society.”
Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at the Institute of the Pacific, said the deal would drag on until the next round of negotiations, which would likely be contentious.
“Anyone who pays attention to climate change knows that the river’s trend is getting lower and lower, and the cuts proposed here are not nearly enough to keep up with the declining inflows,” said Cohen. there.
The proposal includes cuts in the lower Colorado River states of California, Arizona and Nevada, while there are no commitments for additional cuts in the upper basin states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. Cohen said that while seven states have signed a letter in support of the proposal, tensions remain in the region.
“Really, the bridge that happens here is between California and Arizona and Nevada, but not with the entire basin,” he said.
Managers of the water utilities involved in the negotiations said having an agreement would address immediate risks and increase reservoir water levels, while allowing them to focus on decisions. on long-term management and negotiation of post-2026 reduction allocation rules.
The proposed agreement represents “incremental adaptation” and is a step in the right direction, said Dave White, a professor at Arizona State University who led the research team. Arizona Water Innovation Initiative.
“That gives states an opportunity as we manage short-term risks to start pivoting and thinking about more transformative, structural adaptation measures,” White said. . “We need a more transformative adaptation over the next few years.”
He said the region needed to find a sustainable method of financing to achieve significantly larger cuts of about 3 million acres per year, because the $1.2 billion available from the federal government would be used. used up.
Under the states’ plan, 2.3 million acre-feet cuts would be exchanged for compensation, amounting to more than $500 per acre. (One acre is enough water to power three typical Southern California households for a year.)
In October, the Federal Ministry of the Interior announce a program invites agricultural water districts and other applicants to submit use reduction proposals, offering payments of between $330 and $400 per acre. Details of the compensation have yet to be announced.
“It’s certainly not a sustainable, long-term financial model to compensate for voluntary conservation to that extent,” White said.
About 80% of the water transferred from the river is used for agriculture, irrigating alfalfa and other fodder crops, as well as a variety of vegetables, from lettuce to carrots.
“We need to have sustained conversations about how we are transitioning to a more sustainable agriculture sector,” says White. To do that, he said, may require new agreements, incentives and regulations to prioritize high-value crops while transitioning away from valuable feed crops. lower.
In the meantime, managers of agricultural irrigation zones in California and Arizona have applied for federal funding to compensate farmers for planting less and leaving some of their water in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, now 30% full.
Some growers say they are willing to give up summer crops, such as hay or wheat, and fallow fields for part of the year in exchange for payment.
Gold said that in addition to money for farmland owners, funds should be provided to create opportunities for farmers who are vulnerable to losing their jobs when the fields dry out.
Tribes are also looking to contribute to the cuts. Federal officials have announced that $233 million will go to Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community, most of it to compensate the tribal nation for leaving water in Lake Mead.
Jay Weiner, a tribal water attorney, said the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation has also submitted a proposal to the federal government to participate in the conservation of Lake Mead. The tribe participated in a voluntary program in which farmers did not plant some of their land from April to July.
“We are not reinventing the wheel here. It’s just that we have to reach these agreements and determine how much funding will be and how the mechanism will work,” Weiner said.
Tribal leaders provided input on the interstate agreement, Weiner said, and the consensus set the region on a path toward cooperation and away from lawsuits. chant.
“I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that a consensus of downstream countries will solve the problem on the river. It does not address the ongoing structural deficit. It’s not a long-term solution,” Weiner said. “But together with the favorable hydrology that this past winter has brought us, it has allowed us to really roll up our sleeves and sit down and try to figure out what the long-term solutions might be, This will require very difficult conversations.”