Turning the Tide: Western States Make Strides in Water Conservation Amid Drought

The long-running drought in the West has been setting off alarm bells among decision-makers as reservoirs drop precipitously, prompting dire forecasts about lost electricity and drastically reduced water for agriculture and domestic use.

Colorado River Agreement in the Works

Recent months, however, have brought encouraging news on the water conservation front. The biggest development was the May agreement reached by Arizona, California, and Nevada to take significantly less water from the Colorado River. In exchange, the federal government will pay about $1.2 billion to irrigation districts, cities, and Native American tribes in those states. The agreement still must be reviewed by all seven Colorado River Basin states and approved by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The New York Times reported that the combined “reductions would amount to about 13% of the total water use in the lower Colorado Basin,” which it wrote will “likely require significant water restrictions for residential and agriculture uses.” In all, USA Today reported, that would be a reduction of at least 3 million acre-feet between now and the end of 2026. (In case you’re wondering, an acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, enough for two families of four annually.)

The Significance of the Colorado River

The Colorado River needs all the help it can get, as it supplies drinking water to some 40 million people in seven states and Mexico. And millions depend on the electricity generated by dams at Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Significantly, the river also enables irrigation to more than 5 million acres of farmland. In fact, the 17 western states, according to Climate Central, account for 81% of the country’s irrigation water use. California’s enormous agricultural needs make it the leader among all states in irrigation water demands, particularly for its enormous Imperial Valley alfalfa industry, one of the largest water users in the basin.

Winter Snowfall Pivots Focus

It helps that over the winter much of the region experienced enormous snowfall, which now has rivers roaring with snowmelt. That has the Bureau of Reclamation (BLM) forecasting that water flowing into Lake Powell will be about 17% above average through July, hiking the lake’s level an impressive 40 feet. “Lake Powell is at 23% of average,” Paul Miller, a hydrologist for the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, told NBC News. Miller said there’s still a long way to go, “but we’re going in the right direction.”

A Special Report of the U.S. Drought Monitor this month noted that “the total area of the western U.S. that is in drought is nearly 50% less than at the beginning of the water year (October 2022) and wetter and cooler-than-normal conditions have pivoted the focus from drought to flood, snowmelt, and runoff management.”

Amy Ostdiek, an information chief at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, agreed with that sentiment. “Things are looking good right now,” she told the Colorado Sun. “(But) we need to not lose sight of the need to have plans in place” if the situation doesn’t keep improving.

Which means that water conservation must remain top of mind in the West. The general public supports an increased emphasis on water conservation, as illustrated by the 2023 Conservation in the West Poll.

Water Conservation on the State Level

And states, along with support from the federal government, are working to conserve this precious commodity. For example:

In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a high desert, the owner of the 1,900-acre Peachwood Farms in late 2022 signed the state’s first groundwater conservation easement. “The landmark legal agreement,” reported Circle of Blue, “enables … a substantial tax credit based on the value of 2,000 acre-feet of water used annually. In exchange, (the owner) is prohibited from pumping groundwater to irrigate his fields.” Now a number of others are contemplating doing the same.

In 2021 the Southern Nevada Water Authority announced plans to lower per capita water use. Months before, the Nevada Independent reports, the state legislature had “passed a bill prohibiting the use of ornamental turf …with no functional purpose except to serve as a decoration along streets, medians and inside roundabouts.” Bans have since followed on decorative grass and limits have been placed on the size of new swimming pools in the Las Vegas area. Now the legislature is considering a bill to give the Authority emergency powers to curb excessive water use in a drought.

Earlier this year, Utah signed off on more than $500 million for water conservation and development that includes: agricultural water optimization, water reuse reservoir and desalination, water infrastructure projects, and other efforts.

In Arizona the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority is considering myriad proposals to improve conservation. The ideas, as reported by AZCentral, range from a Phoenix school that wants to institute rainwater harvesting to running irrigation water through pipes instead of uncovered canals. The Legislature backed spending of more than $1 billion in water management in its most recent session. 

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California recently ended emergency restrictions on water use after that state’s massive winter snowfall. But before that it had mandated the 7 million people it manages to only water one day per week while California endured its most severe drought in 126 years.

At the local level, the new community Sterling Ranch in Colorado enables residents to monitor water use in real time by providing meters for indoor and outdoor use that can also be checked remotely using a smart phone or computer. 

The Federal Deal

On the federal level, the Department of the Interior in April announced a $140 million investment for water conservation and efficiency projects. According to DOI, the funding directed at 84 projects in 15 western states is “expected to conserve over 230,000 acre-feet of water when completed… (the) equivalent to 77 billion gallons of water, enough water for more than 940,000 people.”

Concerns Beyond Drought

Shortages aren’t the only issues facing western rivers. The Colorado Sun reported that a sampling of 16 rivers in Colorado turned up dangerous microplastics in each one. That resulted in outreach to state lawmakers to increase efforts that restrict the use of plastics that never biodegrade. 

It isn’t all sobering news. The big snow season resulted in the highest-ever number of visits to Rocky Mountain ski areas and an all-time high of 67.4 million skier visits to U.S. ski resorts. And it also means a big season for Colorado wildflowers.

Ken Mirr is the Founder and Managing Broker of Mirr Ranch Group. Have a question about the West or investing in a ranch? Email him at Ken@MirrRanchGroup.com.

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