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Feds announce more than $700 million in water investments in the West

Dawn at Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell in Utah.
Claire Harbage/NPR
Dawn at Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell in Utah.

The Biden administration recently announced $728 million in investments to address drought and climate change in the West. The funding will kickstart conservation programs, environmental restoration projects and water infrastructure construction, among other efforts.

The money comes from recently passed federal legislation, including the bipartisan infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act. Western officials, including Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., praised the announcement.

“The American West is in crisis. This funding will help communities, water users, and family farmers and ranchers mitigate the effects of the 1,200-year megadrought,” Bennet said. “There’s more to do to protect our Western way of life, but this is a strong start.”

A huge chunk of funding – $125 million – is going to the System Pilot Conservation Program in the Upper Colorado River Basin states. This program pays river users like farmers, ranchers and others to not use their water rights and instead keep resources in the watershed. $25 million will fund a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative to help farmers and ranchers conserve more water and build climate resilience.

In a meeting with a Colorado rancher before Biden’s State of the Union address, Bennet said voluntary programs like these are great ways for people to contribute to drought relief efforts before any potential mandatory cuts.

“The only way anybody really ever embraces change is if they see each other doing something new and then it actually makes a difference to their bottom line,” he said. “And to that end, their ability to pass their farm or their ranch on to the next generation.”

This round of funding also invests in water treatment plants in New Mexico and Montana. Additionally, it will help provide clean drinking water to rural and tribal communities, as well as fund the construction of additional fish passages, reservoirs and pipelines.

Federal officials hope this funding will keep diminishing reservoirs like Lake Powell from falling to critically low levels.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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