Western water on the precipice

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Western water on the precipice

Low water supplies in the Western United States have reached a desperate situation. As replenishing rain will not fall, civic and business leaders are stepping up to ease the situation as much as possible.

Mark Twain observed: “Whisky is for drinking - water is for fighting.”

This is a favorite quote used by Dennis Nuxoll.

Few have a greater grasp of water’s value than Nuxoll, who works from Washington, DC, as vice president, federal government affairs, for the Western Growers Association. WGA, headquartered in Irvine, CA, is at the forefront in addressing the water crisis in California and the Colorado River Basin. Nuxoll is the point of that spear.

“We’re on the precipice of really drastic stuff,” he tells Fresh Fruit Portal.

WGA is working not only on the Federal level, but with state legislatures in California, Arizona and many other entities to address this critical and highly complex situation.

The Federal government has recently appropriated $12 billion under two separate bills for projects to improve water management in the West. More on that, below.

“For me it’s an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Nuxoll emphasizes. “That’s certainly the case in the Colorado River Basin. In one or two years, if the water levels continue to drop, hydroelectric turbines won’t spin at lakes Mead and Powell. Los Angeles will not only have a problem with no water, but no electricity.”

Meanwhile, as many as 500,000 acres of agricultural land in California’s Central Valley may go fallow because of a lack of irrigation water.

For good, practical reasons, agriculture has always had senior water rights in the western U.S. “We use a lot of water to grow food.” As the water supplies are rapidly shrinking agriculture still is first in line.

Still, for water management discussions, “urban folks need to be involved too. We may say, ‘You’re not allowed to have a grass lawn. Or, if it gets really tight, maybe you can’t have golf courses. That would bring a revolt from retirees in Arizona! I’m half joking but if you can’t grow food, you don’t need a lawn.” Nor a golf course.

Nuxoll says agriculture and cities and towns must collaborate on comprehensive management plan. All must save water. “But having farmers save water so someone else can use it isn’t sufficient. It has to be more than that.”

As growers receive less irrigation water, economics will and already have started forcing new crop selections.

If land is fallowed in the Colorado River Basin and California, it is the lower value crops that growers will choose to stop producing. Water that has produced field-grown crops will go to orchard crops. “Almonds use more water but they’re a higher value crop,” Nuxoll notes.

Recent drought history

After a long drought, California had a good spell of water for one or two years. But over the last four years, California has been in another drought.

Nuxoll says that, generally, the Colorado River Basin has been dry for 15 or 20 years. The Rio Grande River has been under-replenished for the last 25 or 30 years.  The Pacific Northwest has had a two- or three-year drought.

“The entire Western U.S. is in bad shape. We have to create more efficient irrigation for our farms.”

To answer this crisis, the Federal government created “two pots of money” totaling $12 billion. These two huge resources represent short-term and long-term plans, Nuxoll explains.

Over the next four years, $4 billion will be spent from the Inflation Reduction Act for a short-term answer to address the drought crisis on the Colorado River, and boost Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The Department of the Interior is running this program, which specifically funds water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought. 

According to the Department of the Interior, it will establish, among other funding mechanisms, a two-step process to solicit short-term conservation contributions and longer-term durable system efficiency projects.

Longer-term projects could include initiatives such as canal lining, re-regulating reservoirs, ornamental and non-functional turf removal, salinity projects and other infrastructure or “on the ground” activities. Projects could also be related to aquatic ecosystem restoration and impacts mitigation, crop water efficiency, rotational fallowing, and marginal land idling.   

Congress passed and the President signed into law in November 2021 to provide $8 billion for the Department of the Interior to outline new and urgent actions to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, indicated at the time: “We must work together to make the tough choices necessary to chart a sustainable future for the Colorado River System on which more than 40 million people depend. As we move forward, we will do so with key guiding principles, including collaboration, equity and transparency. I am committed to bringing every resource to bear to help manage the drought crisis and provide a sustainable water system for families, businesses and our vast and fragile ecosystems.”  

In the meantime, we can pray for rain.

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