We can save the Colorado River

It’s time to create an Irrigation Reserve Program.

 

Colorado River Basin states need to cut their Colorado River consumption to prevent reservoirs from declining to critically low levels. Historic doctrines have Nevada (shown here) with a 2% share of the river, the smallest of any of the states.

It is no exaggeration to say that a megadrought not seen in 500 years has descended on the seven Colorado River Basin states: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. That’s what the science shows, and that’s what the region faces.

Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas and San Diego have already reduced per capita water use. Yet they continue to consume far more water than the river can supply. The river and its tributaries are still overdrawn by more than a million acre feet annually, an amount in consumption equaled by four cities the size of Los Angeles.

To close the deficit, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the states have been struggling to apportion the drastic cuts necessary.

So far, the parties have proceeded by adhering rigidly to historic doctrines: first users have absolute rights, though those rights were based on rosy projections of the river’s annual flow.

For example, in Arizona the six million residents of Phoenix and Tucson will lose 50% of their share before California gives up a single drop.

Nevada, which has a 2% share, the smallest of any state, is called on to take more cuts ahead of California, which has the largest share, 29%.

Within California, water to 20 million residents in cities will be completely shut off before farming districts adjacent to and within the Imperial Valley take any cuts.

And in the Upper Basin, the states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico are faced with draconian reductions in their entitlements because they must deliver water to the Lower Basin states. 

Brad Udall, a water scientist at Colorado State University, warns that something must give, that we cannot continue with a system that increasingly “violates the public’s sense of rightness.”

There is a better, more equitable pathway for reducing the deficit without forcing arbitrary cuts. It involves 3 million acres of irrigated agriculture, mostly alfalfa and forage crops, which consume more than 80% of total water use in the Basin.

By retiring less than 10% of this irrigated acreage from production, we could eliminate the existing million acre-foot overdraft on the Colorado River, while still maintaining the dominant role of agriculture. Pilot programs in both the Upper and Lower basins have demonstrated how agricultural retirement programs can work at the local level. What’s lacking is the vision and financing to bring these efforts to a basin scale.

We could eliminate the existing million acre-foot overdraft on the Colorado River, while still maintaining the dominant role of agriculture.

Fortunately, there’s a precedent administered by the Department of Agriculture; it’s the Conservation Reserve Program, established in 1985 by the Congress. It authorizes the Farm Service Agency in the Department of Agriculture to contract with landowners to retire marginal and environmentally sensitive agricultural lands in exchange for rent. 

Farmers who join the Conservation Reserve remain free to return the lands to production at the end of the renewable contract period, typically 10 to 30 years.

The national Conservation Reserve currently holds nearly 22 million acres under contracts with more than 300,000 farms. This legislation has strong support from the farming community and in the Congress, which appropriates nearly $2 billion each year for the program.

With this precedent, it’s time to create an Irrigation Reserve Program. To work, it must be voluntary, and farmers who participate must be adequately paid for the use of their irrigation rights.

A new Irrigation Reserve on a basin scale will also require significant public funding. But the mechanism for financing an Irrigation Reserve is already available in existing federal law.

In 1973, faced with deteriorating water quality in the Colorado River, the Basin states came together and persuaded the Congress to enact a law known as the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act. 

To fund salinity control projects throughout the Basin, the Congress allocated revenues from the sale of hydropower from Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam and other federal dams throughout the Basin.

Three hydropower accounts – the Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund, the Upper Colorado River Basin Fund and the Hoover Powerplant Act – continue to capture and allocate revenues to basin projects. Congress should now add financing of an Irrigation Reserve to the list of eligible expenditures.

With these two precedents, the Conservation Reserve Program and the Salinity Control Act, we have the road map to establish a Basin-wide Irrigation Reserve. I urge the seven Basin states to make common cause and join together to obtain Congressional legislation.

Bruce Babbitt served as Secretary of the Interior from 1993-2001 and is a contributor to WritersontheRange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively discussion about Western issues. 
Email 
High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.