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Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County shows the effect of a water draw down on October 29, 2021. The reservoir has lowered because water from it is being released downstream to increase the volume of water available to downstream users that rely on the Colorado River. Blue Mesa is fed by the Gunnison River, one of the Colorado River's largest tributaries. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The climate change and health care bill nearing final approval in Congress includes $4 billion to rent, buy or save water that could go a long way to help restore the beleaguered Colorado River Basin amid a historic megadrought, Senate supporters and water advocates say. 

The money can be used by states and local agencies to temporarily buy farmers’ water rights, fund permanent conservation programs like city lawn buy-ups, or negotiate with tribes to keep their water rights in the basin, said Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who with two other Western senators negotiated to keep the $4 billion alive. 

“The West has not been this dry in 1,200 years, the Colorado River is in crisis as a result, and we don’t have a plan and we need to develop one,” Bennet said in an interview after the weekend’s round of amendments and Senate passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. “I believe very strongly that the federal government has to be there with resources to backstop an agreement.”

Federal water management officials have warned the seven Colorado River Basin states they must cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of consumption immediately, up to 25% of the river’s recent flow. If the states don’t leave more water in the river, plummeting water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead threaten hydroelectric power and even delivery of the water itself to Lower Basin cities if levels drop below the intakes. About 40 million people depend on water from the river.

Environmental advocates agreed with Bennet that the $4 billion is at least a down payment on preventing that dreaded “dead pool” situation in the big reservoirs, and providing the basis of a long-term recovery plan for the watershed. 

“This is probably not enough to get us all the way to 4 million acre-feet, or even two, but it certainly puts a large dent in that,” said Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Project. 

Some of the IRA’s $4 billion could go toward a separate plan supported by Colorado’s U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and other Western senators that would revive a voluntary agriculture water buy pilot program that expired four years ago. Under the System Conservation Pilot Program, farmers and ranchers let fields go fallow, and the amount of their water rights saved could be sent down river or stored to meet part of the Upper Basin states’ obligations to the new 2 million to 4 million acre-foot savings target. 

The U.S. House is expected to take up final passage of the $750 billion Inflation Reduction Act bill this week. 

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said reducing water use in the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada would be the most effective use of the money. 

“We’re here because of overuse in the Lower Basin,” Lochhead said. “The vast majority of this money needs to be spent in the Lower Basin.”

Lochhead, however, acknowledged that the Upper Basin — Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming — states would also need to play a role in reducing water use. 

“This is a basinwide problem and I think water users in the Upper Basin need to participate as well, that includes municipalities,” he said. “Regardless of whether Denver Water seeks any of this money, you’ll see an increased emphasis on water use efficiency and conservation.” 

FILE – In this July 30, 2021, photo, a houseboat rests in a cove at Lake Powell near Page, Ariz. Federal water officials have announced that they will keep hundreds of billions of gallons of Colorado River water inside Lake Powell instead of letting it flow downstream to southwestern states and Mexico. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said Tuesday, May 3, 2022, that the move would allow the Glen Canyon Dam to continue producing hydropower while officials strategize how to operate the dam with a lower water elevation. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The entire Upper Basin consumed about 3.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water in 2021, compared with about 10 million acre-feet used by the Lower Basin and Mexico, according to Bureau of Reclamation numbers compiled by the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Supporters of the drought funding portion of the bill say it will: 

  • Allow river conservation districts, nonprofits and state water agencies to apply for grants to rent or buy water rights meant to restore flows in the Colorado River and other major Western watersheds. Those water rights could loaned by farmers, ranchers, Native American tribes or others who want to negotiate. The bill specifies the quantity of water savings should be verifiable. 
  • Encourage municipal agencies to seek federal money for water conservation allowing cities to leave more of their river water rights within the watershed; Denver and Aurora, for example, transfer huge volumes of Colorado River Basin water from the Western Slope to the Front Range for residential use. Permanent savings programs could include replacing thirsty bluegrass, drip irrigation, low-flow toilets, and recycling water. 
  • Provide grants and other financial assistance toward “ecosystem and habitat restoration projects that address issues directly caused by drought in a river basin,” according to congressional aides close to the negotiations. 
  • Allow for spending beyond the Colorado River Basin, though that broad mandate does worry some focused specifically on the devastating drought inside the river system. Negotiators said they needed the support of Arizona Democrat Sen. Krysten Sinema, who with others wanted more states to get access to drought funding. Bennet said the language and intent of the drought provisions will keep the majority of help focused on the Colorado River. 
  • Avoid spending new federal money on longshot, much-derided Western drought solutions such as pipelines from the Mississippi River or Great Lakes states to the west. 

“I think that door has largely been closed,” Funk said, of counting on massive new water transfers. “Overall, we’re pretty happy with how this has turned out, and are looking forward to working with states, tribes and their partners to help shape the spending.” 

While $4 billion alone is not enough to buy all the water needed for a 4 million acre-foot annual restoration of Colorado River flows, Bennet said Western supporters of the legislation can add in many other pieces as connected climate policy. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 included $5 billion to restore forest health across the country, which improve runoff and water quality. Another $5 billion was included for mitigating fire risk, and $20 billion more for water conservation on agricultural land, Bennet said. 

Democrats Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Mark Kelly of Arizona announced the $4 billion drought fund over the weekend along with Bennet. All three are running for reelection this fall. 

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver

Chris Outcalt covered Western water issues for The Colorado Sun. He began his journalism career in New Hampshire, then moved West and became a reporter at the Lafayette News. He also was an associate editor at 5280 and a reporter for the Vail Daily. His freelance...