“Climate change fundamentally alters” Colorado River: States and tribes grapple with drought

Colorado River Basin states are adjusting to the reality that their rights exceed available water by nearly a third, state and tribal leaders told a congressional panel on Friday.

The situation will likely only get worse as the climate changes, leaving states and tribes to compete for their most vital resource.

Representatives from the seven western states – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Utah and Wyoming – that depend on the river for drinking water and irrigation said at a hearing of the Deputy United States House Natural Resources Committee that they were preparing for a future where the river and their rights did not match.

State officials and lawmakers stressed the gravity of the situation, but offered few solutions at Friday’s hearing – the first of two the panel plans to hold on the drought in the Colorado Basin – beyond general calls for conservation and collaboration.

The states and tribes of the basin are legally entitled to 15 million acre-feet of water per year, with another 1.5 million going to Mexico, but only about 12.4 million have sunk during a average year over the past two decades.

The deficit is the result of a multi-year drought linked to climate change, said U.S. Representative Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee on water, oceans and wildlife, and d ‘others.

“After more than two decades of drought with no end in sight, it’s clear – to most of us at least – that climate change is fundamentally altering the Colorado River,” Huffman said. “This decreases the amount of water available from this key river. “

Ranking Republican Cliff Bentz, of Oregon, said the shortage in the Colorado River basin may soon be a reality elsewhere.

“This situation Colorado is facing is so reflective of what we’re going to see across the West,” Bentz said, adding that whatever solution is found, it could be “any model.”

Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, chairman of the comprehensive natural resources committee, called for “a comprehensive initiative” to plan for lower water levels in the basin.

States preach cooperation

State representatives spoke about the challenges created by the shortfall and how they were preparing for a darker future, although they offered few specific solutions.

“Drought and climate change present challenges that are likely to increase over time,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

Buschatzke said the choice was either to reduce each state’s water allocation or to keep use. Arizona was focused on conservation, he said. Partnerships with tribes, neighboring states and other entities would be helpful, he added.

John Entsminger, chief executive of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said collaborative regional projects, such as a water recycling partnership between his agency and the one in Southern California, would be needed to deal with the downturn. water flows.

“We have a simple but difficult decision to make,” he said. “Are we doubling down on the promises of the last century and fighting for water that just isn’t there, or are we rolling up our sleeves and facing the climatic realities of this century?” “

Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said water shortages were forcing “heartbreaking” decisions for the state’s farmers, ranchers and tribal communities.

Some residents had decided to sell multigenerational family farms, she said.

“These decisions have significant psychological, sociological and economic impacts for communities,” she said.

John D’Antonio, the engineer of state for New Mexico, said the partnership between states, tribes and the Mexican government had worked for nearly a century and called for it to continue, even if water levels drop.

“Any future decision-making process should simultaneously take into account scientific, legal and political aspects,” he said. “I am confident that the Seven Basin States will strive to use an evidence-based approach that takes this holistic view into account.”

Bentz said the collaboration and curatorial ideas looked good, but raised doubts about what the ideas could do on their own.

Saying that he could ask the same question of everyone who had testified, he asked Mitchell how much water conservation measures could save in his state.

Colorado’s water conservation plan could retain 400,000 acre-feet, Mitchell said, although she said that included areas outside of the Colorado River Basin.

Tribal rights

Amelia Flores, president of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, told the panel that her government did not have full rights to its share of water. Over 70 miles of the river runs through tribal lands in Arizona and California.

While tribes are allowed to divert water for their own purposes, they cannot rent it to other communities, a right other tribes enjoy, Flores said. A bill allowing Colorado River Indian tribes to enjoy the same right would help their neighbors, she said.

“Without the right to lease our water, there isn’t much we can do to directly help communities in Arizona,” she said. “We are simply asking for the right to decide for ourselves how best to use our water. “

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