Members of the committee had a recurring question about the projected 3.2 million acre-foot* shortfall between supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin: What – if anything – should the federal government do about it?
In his opening remarks, Sen. Lee (R-UT) approvingly read from the study’s disclaimer that said the study is not to be used as a foundation for any legislative or regulatory action by the federal government. Sen. Udall (D-CO) directly asked the first panel of witnesses what the federal government’s role should be. Sen. Flake (R-AZ) reiterated this question to the second panel of witnesses, saying it was his preference that the federal government be the “last resort” when it comes to solving water problems in the basin.
These statements reflect an appropriate hesitance in Congress to tell Western states what to do with their water.
Management of water resources has always been the province of the states, a responsibility they vigorously defend. But it is wrong to think the federal government doesn’t have a role to play or Congress a responsibility to act.
Mike Connor, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, called Reclamation a valued partner to the states in water management. Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, was more explicit. He said Reclamation provides essential technical support, guidance and research to the states. He also testified that funding for programs such as WaterSMART makes the Colorado River Basin Study possible. Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy, asked for support for WaterSMART in her testimony.
The federal role in responding to our water resources management challenges is broader than what these witnesses testified, however. Leaving aside the fact that issues between states that also impact other countries (e.g., Mexico in the case of the Colorado River) have a necessary federal nexus, the problems in the Colorado River Basin are a bellwether for issues coming to all parts of the country.
The northwestern and southeastern United States are already facing water conflicts analogous to those in the Colorado River Basin, the U.S. energy sector is vulnerable nationwide to projected water shortages and floods, and water for fish and wildlife is too often an afterthought among other competing uses.
If you care about having water to drink in Atlanta or lights that come on in Seattle or wetlands that support wildlife in the northern Great Plains, you should be interested in lessons being learned right now in the Colorado River Basin.
There is one action sportsmen and Congress can take in the short term to address these disparate challenges: support WaterSMART. This program and similar federal efforts are competitive cost share programs that develop local solutions to national problems. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, WaterSMART grants have already led to 616,000 acre-feet of water saved through conservation.
In 2013 alone, WaterSMART gave the following:
- $1 million to the Hoopa Valley Tribe in northern California to install over 20,000 linear feet of new pipeline to address inefficiencies in the existing delivery system of open ditches and pipes. The project will save 379 acre-feet of water annually, which will be left in Soctish and Captain John Creeks, eventually feeding into the Trinity and lower Klamath Rivers where it will benefit threatened coho salmon and green sturgeon.
- $200,000 to the Fort Shaw Irrigation District in Montana to upgrade 10,800 feet of open ditch canal to pipe and install six new center pivots, allowing growers to switch from flood irrigation and increase efficiency. The project will save 2,628 acre-feet annually, which will be left in the Sun River to help maintain and improve minimum stream flows.
- $1.5 million to the Central Oregon Irrigation District to upgrade 4,500 linear feet of canal to pipe, an improvement that will save 2,552 acre-feet each year. The conserved water will become permanent instream flows in the middle Deschutes River and in a reach of the Crooked River that is critical for the endangered Middle Columbia River steelhead.
- $1.5 million to the Cub River Irrigation Company in northern Utah to upgrade 6.5 miles of open ditch canal to pipe. The project will save 2,800 acre-feet of water each year, which will be left in the Bear River and benefit the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge downstream.
In fiscal year 2013, the federal government spent a little over $52 million on the WaterSMART program. For 2014, President Obama has asked Congress for $35 million for the program, a 32 percent cut from last year. The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would fund WaterSMART at $16.6 million, a 68 percent cut from last year. As part of that cut, the House bill would completely eliminate funding for the competitive grants, like those listed above, that have led to significant on-the-ground water conservation in partnership with local communities.
The bright spot is the Senate, which has legislation funding WaterSMART at $51 million. This is essentially the same level as last year, 45 percent above President Obama’s request and three times the House level. When the House and Senate meet to resolve their differences and fund the government for 2014, they can demonstrate to sportsmen how important water conservation is by the level of investment they make in WaterSMART.
Congress can also show its support for sportsmen by extending the successful WaterSMART partnerships with state and local entities. The authorization for water conservation grants is about to run out, which is part of the reason funding is in jeopardy. At a minimum, Congress needs to reauthorize these grants and renew its commitment to water conservation.
The TRCP Center for Water Resources will be taking this message to Congress. Stay tuned for ways you can get involved to let your representatives in Congress know that investments that conserve water for fish and wildlife are important to hunters and anglers.
* An acre-foot of water is approximately as much water as a family of four will use in a year.