There is $4B for drought relief in the West in the climate act. Here’s how it could be used – CNN

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Some states, tribes and cities are already reducing their water use. Farmers fallow fields and change how they irrigate when the water runs dry.

If the House of Representatives approves the climate bill, it would provide the answer to the question that worries the legislators of the Southwest: How will we compensate farmers and residents for even steeper, voluntary water cuts?

With this funding, states can pay farmers not to farm and pay residents dig their lawns in favor of xeriscaping. The $4 billion could be distributed to farmers, ranchers, private communities, Indian tribes or businesses that voluntarily reduce their water use or work to restore the habitat and ecology of the rivers.
Lawmakers told CNN the funding is long overdue. And it comes just as the US Bureau of Reclamation has set up cut Colorado River water allocations for the second year in a row. Federal officials already have took unprecedented steps to try to save Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs in the country, which millions of people rely on for agriculture, hydropower and municipal water use.

But those steps may still not be enough to save the reservoirs and the river basin that feeds them, said Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, a Democrat.

“This thing is getting worse so quickly that those cuts are not going to stabilize the system,” Kelly told CNN. “We need to find more water to put into Lake Mead and Lake Powell, but where is that water coming from?”

As regular rainfall in the West decreases — a consequence of the climate crisis – that water must come from usage reductions.

Sarah Porter, the director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said one helpful proposal has been for farmers in the Southwest to cut nearly 1 million acre-feet of their water use per year. One acre-foot – a foot of water spread over an acre – is roughly 325,000 gallons of water, which is enough to sustain a family of four for an entire year.

This bill is a “game changer,” Porter told CNN, because it answers the question of how the government would pay these farmers to stop farming.

“This new facility, this money will fund voluntary conservation,” Porter said. “And that’s what we need to have happen.”

A red line question

Kelly and other Senate Democrats, including Michael Bennet of Colorado and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, struck a hasty deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to include the funding in the final days for the passage of the bill.

They were aided by Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Senate voter who made drought relief funding a red line requirement in her own negotiations with Schumer.

The funding was not guaranteed — lawmakers said the amount fluctuated from $1 billion to a final $4 billion. Bennet told CNN that when she finalized $4 billion, “it made me want to break down and cry.”

Irrigation canals run through farmland in Pinal County, Arizona.

The Bureau of Reclamation is looking to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water use to maintain Lakes Powell and Mead beginning next year, bureau commissioner Camille Touton said at a recent congressional hearing.

Bennet and Kelly said the drought is bad for farmers in their states, who are being forced to make tough choices for their crops and livestock. About 80% of Arizona’s Colorado River allocation goes to watering crops, Kelly said.

“They understand that we’re trying to help, and they have to do their part as well,” Kelly said.

“Everybody knows nobody makes new water,” Bennet added. “We are in a crisis and we need to figure out how to make voluntary cuts and start to address this.”

Water cuts vs improving infrastructure

Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation was allocated about $8 billion for needed projects and infrastructure upgrades from President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law. But the $4 billion in climate change legislation is fundamentally different, according to Porter.

“The infrastructure funding typically funds projects that will result in efficient water use, and we’re at a point where we’ve identified or done a lot of those things,” Porter said. “There just aren’t many opportunities left; that’s why we’re at this point where we have to look at paying people to let water into the system.”

Climate hawks breathe a sigh of relief after more than a decade of fighting for climate legislation

Moving forward, longer-term solutions like water reuse and recycling are desperately needed, said Eric Kuhn, a retired former manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“My only hope is that the majority of the money is spent on projects that will permanently reduce and balance the system, rather than cover the costs of temporary fallow,” Kuhn told CNN. “The system really needs to be more reactive to uncertain changes in hydrology due to climate change.”

Experts and lawmakers told CNN that their top priority now is to save and stabilize water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Without these reservoirs, the West’s water crisis would deepen dramatically.

“If we end up drying out Lake Powell and Lake Mead and get into the situation where it’s unrecoverable, I can’t imagine what the cost of that is going to be,” Bennet said. “I’m happy that we have a down payment that will buy us some time.”

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