One of the greatest challenges facing our country is the growing water crisis in the western states. Years of drought and overuse have created vulnerability in the water systems throughout the region. Of particular concern is the Colorado River System which provides water to approximately 40 million people across seven states and Mexico and irrigation for 5 million acres of farmland. Finding ways to ensure its continued integrity has been a growing concern for many when consensus among the states as to the best path forward has been difficult to attain. Now, the federal government is adding considerable backing to propel action.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) enacted August 16 includes $4 billion to underwrite efforts to counter devastating effects of long-term drought on rivers and other inland bodies of water, with specific focus given to water management and conservation. An initial outlay of funds has been allocated to launch the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program which will, “help increase water conservation, improve water efficiency, and prevent the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production,” according to a press release from the Department of the Interior. Although specific initiatives have yet to be determined, many will likely incentivize conservation which could include paying water users such as farmers and utility districts to voluntarily reduce their water deliveries, paying farmers to let land lie fallow, installing water-efficient technologies, and paying for turf-removal programs. Nonetheless, voluntary measures will only be effective if payouts are significant.
Although these programs will foster short-term strides in conservation, the tough decisions regarding demand management have yet to be made. Over the summer, the basin states were directed to outline a plan that would cut two to four million acre-feet of water in the next year. They failed to meet that deadline emphasizing the discord among the states as to the best approach to contend with the escalating problem; meanwhile, continued inaction puts water at risk for millions. The monthly forecasting for water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell in August triggered additional cuts to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico that will come into effect in 2023 on the heels of cuts that went into effect in 2022. Further, at a recent meeting of the Colorado River district, attendees were told that scientists suggest that even greater reductions will be necessary, and that the annual water provided by the river should be adjusted to only 9 million acre-feet, a quarter of the total amount used in 2021 by all Colorado River water users.
The Inflation Reduction Act is a positive step toward protecting the Colorado River System, although the urgency of the situation demands swift collaboration and consensus-building among the Upper and Lower Basins, Tribes, and Mexico. Continued vacillation only serves to create a situation that becomes exponentially more dire and daunting to slow or reverse.
 Estabrook, Rachel, and Michael Elizabeth Sakas. “The Colorado River Is Drying up - but Basin States Have 'No Plan' on How to Cut Water Use.” Colorado Public Radio, Colorado Public Radio, 17 Sept. 2022, https://www.cpr.org/2022/09/17/colorado-river-drought-basin-states-water-restrictions/.