Voices for Action

The State of Western Water

By Kevin Moran, EDF Action Associate Vice President of Regional Affairs
2022 is shaping up to be another grim year for the climate crisis that is smashing heat and drought records across the Western United States.   Major reservoirs across the West have dropped to record lows, groundwater is drying up and two of the largest wildfires in New Mexico history are burning right now. It’s only going to get worse this summer.

The latest alarm bells rang out earlier this week in a Senate hearing room, when Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton urged western states to identify by mid-August how to cut demand for Colorado River water by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet for 2023 to avoid reserves plummeting to dangerously low levels. Those numbers are huge: Arizona’s annual Colorado River allotment is 2.8 million acre-feet, and California’s is 4.4 million acre-feet.  Failing an agreement by mid-August, the federal government will mandate cuts under its own authority.  

The issue is touching more people personally.  In the third year of a record drought, about 6 million Southern Californians can only water their lawns once a week. Meanwhile, Colorado passed a law to expand programs that pay landowners to rip out thirsty lawns statewide. In some parts of Nevada, homeowners are banned from watering their landscape on Sundays and between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. any other day. Last summer I had to call my family members who live in northern Arizona near Flagstaff three times because their homes were threatened by wildfires that scarred the landscape. In just two years, the country has seen a 17% surge in wildfires that now endanger 4.5 million Western homes and properties.

I discussed this grim picture – and described several solutions that give me hope – earlier this month during a climate briefing on YouTube and Facebook with Ronna Kelly, the communications director for EDF’s Climate Resilient Water Systems program.  We talked about how megadrought, extreme heat, wildfires and water scarcity are interrelated, how they are threatening our communities, and how we can take action to create a brighter future.

The Colorado River is getting closer to tanking.

The Colorado River, which has seen a 20% drop in water flows since 2000, has become Ground Zero for the harm that climate change is inflicting across the West.  At Lake Powell, a major Colorado River reservoir, water levels have dropped so far – to 24% of capacity — that communities like Page, Arizona, and the Navajo nation’s LeChee chapter are on the verge of losing their water supplies because intake valves will no longer be able to pump it.  

The Colorado River Basin has experienced the driest 23-year period on record.  Climate scientists call the new conditions aridification, and it means a fundamental change in the basin’s water cycle.  For example, in the winter of 2020-2021, the basin’s snowpack was about 90% of the long-term average, but runoff - which is the water that ends up in rivers and streams - was only 32% of average. Because the first-ever shortage of the Colorado River was declared last year, Arizona was forced to cut back nearly 20% of its typical water deliveries from the river —and many farmers and ranchers in places like Pinal County, AZ had to cut back twice as much.   

The solutions:  All of the above, including bold action on climate

When a problem grows this bad this quickly, the pace and scale of action must accelerate immediately. We must reduce demand for Colorado River water right away to comply with Commissioner Touton’s mandate just to stabilize the river and reservoir storage.   In Arizona, a string of events, including Reclamation Commissioner Touton’s testimony this week and more wells going dry in rural Arizona because of unregulated groundwater pumping, clearly demonstrates that without action, Arizona’s reputation as a place of opportunity, growth and unique landscapes – the foundation of the state’s social and political fabric - are at risk. To protect Arizona’s economy and unparalleled natural resources, the state must enact a best-in-class, all-of-the-above strategy to shore up water policy and management.  The time has passed to be able to pick and choose or delay—it’s now a water crisis. We need to support increases in water conservation by all types of water users, invest in recycling and reuse, and invest in watershed and forest health to protect our water supplies.  (For more information, see my blog Ten Strategies for CO River.)

We also need to support agriculture, through updating infrastructure and conservation incentives, and by enabling some areas that face water stress to adapt economically.  That’s why EDF is working with third generation Pinal County, Arizona, farmer Will Thelander and tire manufacturer Bridgestone Americas to explore converting from growing alfalfa to guayule, a natural rubber source that uses 50 to 66% less water. (Video here.)  Meanwhile, in California, a new state program that EDF will be helping to coordinate will pay landowners to repurpose farmland to other beneficial uses like habitat, open space and groundwater recharge.  

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is making some of the biggest investments ever in water security and resilience in the West, including natural infrastructure projects, irrigation system upgrades, and improving access to clean drinking water for tribes. But we know this is not enough.  With each additional 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, the Colorado River’s average flow will drop by 9.3%, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.  We must take on the underlying causes of this crisis by decreasing the primary sources of the planet’s warming - methane and CO2 emissions - as fast as possible, as much as possible.

Making progress with your help 

What’s happening on the Colorado River must be a blazing wake-up call: We must act now with an all-of-the-above approach that includes making the most of the Bipartisan Infrastructure law’s investments in water security and resilience, and bold action by Congress to address the climate crisis. 

The challenges are great, but so is our capacity for action. Think about this: As World War II began, the United States produced a tiny percentage of the world’s manufactured goods. After Pearl Harbor, — because we came together as a nation to respond to the global threat of the Axis powers - the United States produced more than two-thirds of the weapons and equipment that the Allies deployed to win the war. Today we have enormous, untapped capacity to transform our economy and natural resource management. If Congress leads, we can begin turning the climate crisis around in a way that builds a clean energy economy with good jobs.  

My colleague Emma Benninghoff with EDF Action explained how anyone can use their voice and contact their senators in support of bold climate action, using an easy click-to-email link that can be found at www.edfaction.org/actnow. And if you’d like to get more involved with our grassroots efforts in the field, please visit www.mobilize.us/edfaction or www.edfaction.org.