Flowing funds: Climate bill contains $4 billion to combat drought on Colorado River

John LaConte
Vail Daily
For fish, the temperatures in the Colorado River reached dangerously high levels this summer due to low stream flow and higher-than-normal temperatures. As a result, voluntary fishing closures have been enacted on portions of the Colorado River and Eagle River in Eagle County.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy photo

When the U.S. Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act on Sunday, Western legislators breathed a sigh of relief after feeling victorious in an effort to see funding included for the Bureau of Reclamation to combat drought in the Colorado River Basin.

U.S. Senators Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., announced the agreement, which could see billions go toward “voluntary system conservation projects that achieve verifiable reductions in use of or demand for water supplies or provide environmental benefits in the Lower Basin or Upper Basin of the Colorado River,” over the next few years, according to the bill text.

The announcement comes amid one of the hottest summers on record for the Colorado River, which saw temperatures hit 75 degrees Fahrenheit near Dotsero in July. That’s a full 5 degrees higher than the temperatures deemed safe for fishing, and full-day voluntary fishing restrictions were placed on the river in Eagle County.

“The Colorado River Basin is the lifeblood of the American Southwest, it provides the drinking water for 40 million people across seven states and 30 tribes, it irrigates 5 million acres of agricultural land, it underpins the West’s $26 billion outdoor recreation economy, and it is running out of water,” Bennet said in a June 7 hearing for the Senate’s Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources subcommittee.

Andrew Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood, also testified at the hearing, telling the committee that the flows of the Colorado River have been 20% below average over the last 22 years.

“Climate, commonly defined today as the average weather over a 30-year period, has always been variable in the American Southwest,” Mueller said. “We have experienced long dry periods interspersed with generally shorter wet and cooler periods. The climate we have experienced in the last 20 years, however, has been hotter and drier than any period in the last 1,200 years.”

Meanwhile, the climate bill was working its way through Congress, but despite the urging of Bennet (who is the chair of the Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources subcommittee), an original draft of the bill did not contain any money to combat drought in the Colorado River Basin.

Bennet started advocating for drought money to be added to the bill, a source close to the negotiations told the Vail Daily, and found support from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., along with Kelly and Cortez Masto.

The result is a $4 billion package that will flow through states and public entities like water conservation districts and tribes in an attempt to enact both short-term and long-term solutions for drought in the West.

In the past, similar efforts have allowed conservation groups like Trout Unlimited to access funds for habitat work through the Bureau of Reclamation, and the climate bill passed by the Senate on Sunday also calls for funds to be used for “ecosystem and habitat restoration projects to address issues directly caused by drought in a river basin or inland water body.”

Trout Unlimited celebrated the passage of the legislation on Monday.

“The water conservation funding contained in the Inflation Reduction Act is just what we need in the Colorado River basin,” said Sara Porterfield, western water policy advisor at Trout Unlimited. “Ensuring a reliable Colorado River supply and an ecologically healthy river system will require a variety of approaches, including drought operations, system conservation, investments in watershed and soil health, and irrigation infrastructure improvements. We need to begin designing, testing and learning about every option so that we are prepared to respond effectively to the water supply crisis we are experiencing.”

The Inflation Reduction Act now moves on to the U.S. House of Representatives, which is expected to vote on the bill this week.