Fed spending to boost drought-stricken Colorado River System

“Short-term conservation” to remove lawns, stop water leaks

The U.S. federal government plans to use $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to incentivize water conservation and relieve strain on the Colorado River Basin.

Responding to ongoing dry conditions, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) announced new measures for “short-term conservation,” in which the federal funds would catalyze the removal of water-intensive grass in cities and suburbs in addition to modernizing aging infrastructure to stop or prevent water loss.

USBR also plans to fund longer-term, “durable” projects or general improvements to the region’s water infrastructure in order to reduce water inefficiency. The agency also will consider ecosystem restoration and crop water efficiency projects.

A detailed breakdown of spending was released October 12, 2022 with the introduction of the newly created, three-part Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program.1

  • Under part one, applicants may submit proposals until November 21, 2022 for Lake Mead water conservation at a set price of:
    One-year agreement: $330 per acre-foot
    Two-year agreement: $365 per acre-foot
    Three-year agreement: $400 per acre-foot

  • Part two accepts proposals until November 21, 2022 for additional water conservation and efficiency projects that could involve a variety of pricing options.

  • Part three accepts proposals into early 2023 for long-term system efficiency improvements that will result in multi-year system conservation.

These new federal actions come after seven states failed to meet an important water conservation deadline. In June USBR asked them to conserve an unprecedented quantity, 2 to 4 million acre-feet, from the Colorado River -- or the federal government would step in and implement its own conservation measures.

On September 22, federal agencies shared early details of the plan at an invitation-only gathering of water policy leaders in Santa Fe, NM.

USBR also intimated more reductions to water released from the river basin’s reservoirs in 2023. The agency already announced relatively small, mandatory cuts to some water users in the lower basin in accordance with measures from 2019 and 2007 agreements. The agency may alter explicit terms in those agreements, “adjust(ing) triggering elevations and/or increase(ing) reduction volumes.”

Reclamation also announced accelerated studies of bypass tubes at the Glen Canyon dam, which hold back waters at Lake Powell.

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1 Agriculture uses about 80% of the water from the Colorado River Basin System; the sector is under mounting pressure to reduce its demand.

In 2014-2019, a USBR pilot program tested water buybacks at a large scale; since then, the agency has not implemented similar conservation efforts. Earlier this year, states in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River urged revival of the System Conservation Pilot Program.

Axios reported in August that a group of farmers near Yuma, AZ proposed a water conservation plan in which they would receive about $1500 per acre-foot of water savings. The area’s crops are irrigated with water from the Colorado River.

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