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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide. KUER partners with KUNC and other news organizations throughout the Southwest to fully cover water issues in the sprawling Colorado River basin.

Congress hears from water experts as drought continues to imperil West

Luke Runyon
Water leaders called for collaboration across the basin and reductions in usage. Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, has reached record low levels. Forecasts predict a hotter, drier future due to climate change.

The West’s dire drought issues took a national stage on Friday, as a roster of prominent Western water experts from the region testified in front of the U.S. Congress.

Water decision-makers representing seven states and two tribes within the Colorado River basin spoke about drought in a virtual hearing held by the Committee on Natural Resources’ subcommittee on water, oceans and wildlife.

This week’s hearing, and a similar set of testimonies in front of the U.S. Senate last week, comes at a time of crisis for water in the West. More than two decades of drought are straining the region’s supplies, and forecasts predict a hotter, drier future due to climate change. Declining levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, have forced mandatory cutbacks for some users and projections indicate that more will be necessary in the next few years.

Rep. Jim Costa from California described water as “one of the most pressing challenges we face in the 21st century.” He said the river is “oversubscribed” even as population centers within the basin are growing, and climate change threatens to further reduce the supply.

As leaders are faced with the challenge of allocating the steadily shrinking resource, many called for collaboration and additional funding for new and improved infrastructure. Some flatly said the only viable path forward includes major reductions in usage.

“This river community is at a crossroads and has a simple but difficult decision to make,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Do we double down on the promises of last century and fight about water that simply isn’t there, or do we roll up our sleeves and deal with the climate realities of this century?”

Legal entitlements from the first half of the 20th century allow users to pull 17.5 million acre-feet of water each year. Today, usage is approximately 14.0 million acre-feet per year. Over the last 20 years, the river has provided an average of 12.3 million acre-feet per year.

An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year.

Entsminger said water reuse and recycling measures have enabled southern Nevada to extend its overall water supply by more than 75%, but the area is nearing the full potential of those reuse practices.

Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, touched on the sprawling effects of a drought currently touching 90% of the state, including shortages threatening the livelihoods of farmers, and increasingly frequent and devastating wildfires. She also highlighted the heavy impacts the drought had on the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, where an agriculture-dependent economy has been challenged by shortages.

Tribal leaders advocated for greater acknowledgement and respect for tribal sovereignty. Darryl Vigil, water administrator of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, urged the federal government to formalize a process for tribal participation in water negotiations.

“We have experience and knowledge developed over many hundreds of years of sustainable and adaptive living,” Vigil said. “We understand the importance of honoring the very things that keep us alive, that feed us and quench our thirst.”

He explained that tribes have senior water rights to at least 25% of the current natural flow of the Colorado River, and said they have historically been “excluded from decision-making or consulted” only after decisions have been made.

“It is my sincere hope that the attention and action of this committee represents the beginning of a new chapter in the management of the Colorado River,” Vigil said. “A chapter in which tribes are treated with the same dignity, respect and responsibility as the other sovereigns in the basin.”

Amelia Flores, chairwoman of the Colorado Indian River Tribes, emphasized the need for new water infrastructure that would allow tribes to use it more efficiently. That group is Arizona’s largest single user of water from the Colorado river - but is unable to use its full allocation. Flores highlighted proposed legislation that would allow the tribes to lease water to other users.

The subcommittee will hear further drought testimony on Wednesday, Oct. 20.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Alex Hager
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