Fed tells western states to cut water on Colorado River — or else

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The Colorado River is an economic engine for the West. It supports $1.4 trillion in economic activity and 16 million jobs annually, according to a study by an Arizona economics professor. Seven states and more than a dozen tribal nations depend on the Colorado River to provide municipal water and irrigate their crops.

The river is in the midst of a historic drought. Reservoirs have reached alarming new levels and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation has asked seven states that depend on the river to drastically reduce their water use. States have 60 days to create an emergency plan. If they miss that deadline, officials step in and make the cut.

Recently, Camille Taunton of the Bureau of Reclamation addressed a Senate committee with a caveat: Find a way to use less — closer to a quarter less — or the Fed will do it for you.

“It is within our power to take action to protect the system. And we will protect the system,” Touton said.

John Entsminger said he took it as a threat. As head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, he is one of the water managers facilitating this emergency protection contract. And he said it won’t be easy.

“Well, I think every sector, every water user needs to share in the pain,” he said.

Pain is shared between corporate use, municipal use, and the region’s biggest water suckers: agriculture and livestock.

“We can’t do this without agriculture, which uses very little water,” said John Fleck, a water policy researcher at the University of New Mexico.

Fleck said that means farms in places like California’s Imperial Valley and Yuma County, Arizona, are drying up. And it will take a toll on those regional economies.

“It’s scary stuff,” Fleck said. “You know, we need to recognize that it’s not just a mathematical problem that can be solved through engineering, we need to recognize the human toll it takes on communities.”

Anne Cassel, who worked on water policy in the Obama administration, said the threat of these cuts has been high for years. And it would have been easier to gradually reduce water consumption.

“But it’s very difficult to consistently agree to drink less water when there’s no crisis,” Castle said.

We are at that point of crisis now, she said.

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