The Western United States is experiencing the worst megadrought in more than 1,200 years, impacting everything from water supplies in major cities to the survival of farms vital to the nation’s food supply.
Navigating this crisis requires that we treat it as a long-term challenge we adapt to and manage, not a short-term issue we attempt to fix.
The recently signed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) directing billions of dollars to ongoing drought and water shortages in the Colorado River basin creates an historic opportunity to improve water security in the region for generations.
Success requires that we set an objective and transparent funding process that prioritizes permanent, shared conservation solutions over temporary political expediency.
The same day that the IRA was signed into law, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced major, mandatory cuts to the amount of water Arizona, Nevada and Mexico can draw from the Colorado River.
These cuts follow another recent directive for basin states to develop a plan to reduce water use from the river by an additional 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year. For context, Arizona’s entire annual share from the Colorado River is 2.8 million acre-feet.
Change of this magnitude requires fundamentally rethinking how we manage water and resources in the basin. Put more plainly: the systems that have brought us to this point – often the result of water agreements brokered behind closed doors – will not be enough.
Every water user, regardless of their state or historic legal entitlement, will need to be part of the solution.
The good news is that we have resources.
The IRA allocates $4 billion for Western drought and $20 billion for climate-smart agriculture throughout the nation. Coupled with the $8.3 billion for Western water issues in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, this funding can make the difference between the river’s long-term sustainability or eventual collapse – if we invest it wisely and transparently.
The IRA itself does not offer specific or detailed guidance for how federal dollars should be spent. To have the impact needed, the Bureau of Reclamation must set clear and publicly vetted criteria for evaluating projects.
At a time when states are in tense negotiations to determine how to make difficult cuts to their water use, transparency is essential. It will also ensure that funding isn’t allocated for political gain and instead supports projects with the greatest long-term, shared benefit.
The Colorado River basin is facing unprecedented risk, but we also have unprecedented resources.
Objective criteria for evaluating projects should prioritize multiyear water conservation efforts. Investing in nature-based solutions can protect, restore and sustainably manage existing water systems.
These strategies include:
- water recycling;
- reconnecting floodplains and rivers to naturally regulate floodwaters;
- managing forests to reduce wildfires; and
- helping farms switch to more drought-tolerant, higher value crops.
Funded at scale, projects like these can create more a sustainable water supply in basin states for decades to come.
The criteria established by the Bureau of Reclamation should also include a deliberate focus on communities that have been disproportionately impacted by drought, climate change, and water shortages.
Households in tribal nations are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing. Despite having the oldest water rights in the basin, they have historically been left out of key water decision-making bodies and need to have a seat at the table.
As the economic and population centers of the West, cities like Phoenix should have a prominent and direct role in decisions affecting the drinking water for millions of residents and the industries that support our national economy and national security, such as semiconductor and medical device manufacturing.
Cities, along with irrigation districts and other water suppliers, must be able to apply for funding directly and be evaluated by the same transparent criteria so resources quickly get where they are needed most.
The Colorado River basin is facing unprecedented risk, but we also have unprecedented resources. Managed effectively, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide a safe and secure water supply for decades to come.
This article originally appeared in the Arizona Republic on October 3, 2022.