Now Reading
Kelly pushes feds to withhold funds from Calif. to force cutbacks in Colorado River water use

Kelly pushes feds to withhold funds from Calif. to force cutbacks in Colorado River water use

  • Sen. Mark Kelly during a press conference in downtown Tucson in May.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comSen. Mark Kelly during a press conference in downtown Tucson in May.

U.S. Senator Mark Kelly pushed federal officials to withhold funding California's Salton Sea project in order to force the state to conserve more water from the Colorado River.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, published Tuesday, Kelly said the agency needs to step in to secure the Colorado River, which is shared by 40 million people across seven states.

Wracked by historic drought, the Colorado River faces a projected annual shortfall of 2 to 4 million acre feet of water, Kelly wrote. As Lakes Mead and Powell shrink to about one-quarter of their capacity, federal and state officials have to consider how to manage the Colorado River's usage for agriculture, people and hydro-power.

An acre-foot represents water for one to three households depending on the usage, and refers to the amount of water that can cover a square-acre with one foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons.

Kelly, who faces Blake Masters for Arizona's Senate seat, has increasingly pushed for a new deal on the Colorado River to protect agriculture and drinking water in the state. Masters, his Republican challenger, has rarely spoken about the Colorado River or the historic drought, preferring to focus on the border, energy and stopping "woke teachers." At one point, Masters argued water should be "privatized" because the "state can't do it," Salon reported.

Kelly pressed Haaland to lay out options for mitigation measures, as well as possible agreements with Mexico. "Months later, as an agreement remains stalled, it’s clear that Reclamation must outline to states what steps it is willing to take and when to conserve more water," he wrote.

The Interior Department should design mandatory reductions of water use along the river, Kelly said. This should include accounting for evaporation losses from Colorado River water used in California, as well as limiting the amount of water California can allocate from “banks” of water, held in Lake Mead from previous years.

"Additionally, I call on the Department to withhold federal funding for Salton Sea drought mitigation until California commits additional water for long-term conservation," Kelly wrote.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, which updates weekly, shows much of Arizona in drought. And though some areas are either "abnormally dry" or in moderate drought, some areas of the Mohave Valley are in severe drought, including part of Coconino County near Lake Powell. Since 2019, water levels in Lake Mead have dropped about 185 feet. 

"Unfortunately, four months have passed since drought discussions began and little progress has been made toward Basin-wide solutions," Kelly wrote. He noted California, the largest water user on the Colorado River, "only recently proposed to try to conserve up to nine percent of the state’s water allocation." He also wrote California's offer may be contingent on the federal government funding a state initiative on the Salton Sea before new conservation is guaranteed.

"That is not enough water to protect the Colorado River," Kelly wrote, adding Arizona has agreed to forgo more than 20 percent of its allocation by January "and is willing to conserve more."

As part of the Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in August, $4 billion is earmarked for drought mitigation efforts along the Colorado River. Kelly asked Interior Department officials to withhold funding for the Salton Sea project until California "commits to allocating additional water for long-term conservation."

He also complained that California's cut relies on "banking and withdrawing water credits in Lake Mead for previous conservation efforts." Meanwhile, farmers in Yuma—who produce 80 percent of the nation's winter vegetables—are willing to conserve water and "invest in more water-efficient agricultural practices," Kelly wrote.

"We are out of time. The hydrology of the Colorado River is unlikely to improve next year," he said. "The longer the Department waits to press for an agreement in the Lower Basin, the more difficult this crisis will be to solve, leading only to tougher choices and litigation."

Around 1,450 miles long, the Colorado river provides water to seven states in the western U.S. The river system is divided into two regions: the Upper Basin, which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming; and the Lower Basin, which includes Arizona, California, and Nevada.

"We all understand that this is a Basin-wide problem that requires a Basin-wide solution," he said, adding that "ideally, this would come through an agreement" with the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states and Mexico, "but if progress remains slow, the top priority must be to protect the Colorado River that is so critical to our nation’s food supply and the 40 million residents that rely on water from the river."              

— 30 —

Top headlines

Best in Internet Exploder