Biden unveils plan to pay farmers, cities for Colorado River cuts

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The Hoover Dam water intake towers at Lake Mead, the country’s largest man-made water reservoir, formed by the dam on the Colorado River in the Southwestern United States, has dropped 2 inches every day since February (26 feet in one year), are viewed at approximately 25% capacity on July 12, 2022 near Boulder City, Nevada. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

George Rose | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The Interior Department this week announced that it will use some of the $4 billion in drought mitigation funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to pay farmers, cities and Indigenous tribes for drawing less water from the drought-stricken Colorado River.

The program will focus on pushing for voluntary water cuts in the three lower Colorado River Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada, the department said on Wednesday. The plan will pay applicants a set amount of money per acre-foot of water that they voluntarily don’t draw from Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir. One acre-foot of water supplies roughly two households each year.

Reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin have hit their lowest levels on record after 22 consecutive years of drought made worse by climate change. In just five years, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the river’s two largest reservoirs, lost 50% of their capacity as the U.S. West grapples with the two driest decades in the region in at least 1,200 years.

As part of the new plan, applicants will receive higher payments for longer periods of voluntary water cutbacks, the department said. A one-year agreement will pay $330 per acre-foot, a two-year agreement will pay $365 per acre-foot and a three-year agreement will pay $400 per acre-foot.

The federal government in August announced a second round of mandatory cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico from the Colorado River, which supplies water and power for more than 40 million people across the West.

Beginning in January, Arizona must curb its water usage by 592,000 acre-feet, which is about 21% of the water the state uses. Nevada must curb its use by 25,000 acre-feet, which is about 8% of the state’s water use.

So far, mandatory cutbacks have mostly affected farmers in Arizona, who use nearly three-quarters of the state’s available water supply to irrigate their crops. The Colorado river helps fuel about 2.5 million acres of croplands across the western U.S.

States in the Colorado River Basin also missed a deadline set in June by the Bureau of Reclamation to reach a voluntary agreement on how curb water consumption by 2 million acre-feet from the river.

“The Interior Department is committed to using every resource available to conserve water and ensure that irrigators, Tribes and adjoining communities receive adequate assistance and support to build resilient communities and protect our water supplies,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

The Interior announcement came while President Joe Biden visited Colorado to designate the World War II-era military site Camp Hale as a national monument, a decision that will protect the region from new development.

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