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The Colorado River’s biggest user will conserve some water in exchange for federal dollars

A man watches from a car as farm workers pick vegetables and load them onto a conveyor belt.
Alex Hager
John Hawk watches farmworkers pick vegetables in California's Imperial Valley on June 20, 2023. Researchers say growers' perspectives will be an important part of solutions to the Colorado River crisis. Agriculture uses about 80% of the river's water.

The Imperial Irrigation District in California, which uses more Colorado River water than any other farm district or city in the West, has agreed to conserve 100,000 acre-feet in 2023 in exchange for payments from the federal government. It's less than half the amount of water the district originally proposed saving last spring.

The district's conservation agreement represents the first batch of water conserved as part of Imperial’s contributions to a three-state agreement in which California, Arizona and Nevada are pledging to conserve at least 3 million acre-feet of water by the end of 2026, with at least 1.5 million conserved by the end of 2024. 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.

In April, the irrigation district said it would conserve 250,000 acre-feet each year through 2026 as part of a water-saving proposal from the Colorado River Board of California. The 100,000 acre-feet announced in this latest proposal is less than half of that initial goal, but officials with the district say they are aiming to conserve a total of 800,000 acre-feet across the four-year stretch —a goal still 200,000 acre-feet short of the original four-year proposal.

“We’re not backing away from the 250k – but it is a big number,” Robert Schettler, a spokesman for Imperial Irrigation District, wrote in an email. “It was felt that this was needed to be done sooner than later for this single year.”

Tina Shields, Imperial’s water department manager, said conserving a larger quantity of water would have required a multi-year environmental review process, which the district plans to pursue for a 2024-2026 conservation deal.

“We were able to knock out an agreement for this year to do as much as we could under existing programs,” she said. “But we couldn't implement any new programs without that environmental permitting piece.”

Michael Cohen, a senior researcher with the water think tank Pacific Institute, said he thinks Imperial may have been ready to offer more water in exchange for more federal payment —but the Bureau of Reclamation may be doing "some deliberation" and waiting to see if mountain snow adds to this year's Colorado River water supply before spending more money.

“We don't know how much water is coming, this coming winter,” Cohen said. “I'm hopeful that Reclamation is conserving some of that money because they're going to need to invest presumably more money, maybe not for 2024, but 2025 and 2026.”

 Water from the Colorado River flows through the East Highline Canal on its way to farms in Imperial Valley on June 20, 2023. Climate change is shrinking the river's supply, and farms in the area are under pressure to reduce demand.
Alex Hager
Water from the Colorado River flows through the East Highline Canal on its way to farms in Imperial Valley on June 20, 2023. Climate change is shrinking the river's supply, and farms in the area are under pressure to reduce demand.

Reclamation, the federal agency that manages the Colorado River’s major dams and reservoirs, will pay about $776 for each acre-foot Imperial conserves, Shields said. That's nearly double the amount it has paid out to other agricultural districts for water conservation. Federal payments have mostly been capped at $400 per acre-foot, including some made to farm districts that neighbor Imperial. The actual price will be adjusted slightly to account for inflation before payments are finalized.

Some Southwestern farmers have suggested they want much higher payments, sometimes more than $1,200 per acre-foot, since the Biden Administration announced last year it would spend billions on drought mitigation work in the Colorado River basin.

The payout value is tied to a contract between Imperial Irrigation District and the San Diego County Water Authority. About half of the water that will be conserved was initially designated to be transferred to San Diego, but will now instead remain in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir. Imperial officials said the saved water comes from efficiency programs on farms within the district, like new sprinklers and pumps as well as other innovative changes to the fields in which crops are grown.

Farmers in the Imperial Valley told KUNC last summer that federal payments are an integral part of spurring them to help cut back water use.

“Do we need to conserve? Absolutely,” said John Hawk, a farmer in the Imperial Valley. “We need to conserve, but we need to be paid for the conservation.”

Those farmers and Imperial Irrigation District officials also stressed the need for money to help remedy problems caused by a drying Salton Sea. The Colorado River used to intermittently fill the giant lake before it was dammed upstream, causing its flows to be significantly curtailed.

Now, with the river confined to its channel, the sea is sustained with runoff from the farm fields of the Imperial Valley. As the valley’s farmers use less water, the Salton Sea will continue to dry up, reducing habitat for the flocks of migratory birds that stop there and producing dust storms that increase the risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases among the valley’s residents.

This week’s water conservation agreement triggers the release of $70 million from an available $250 million in federal funding earmarked last year for environmental projects to support the Salton Sea. Bureau of Reclamation officials, including commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, plan to visit the Salton Sea later this week to highlight that spending.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.
Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Alex Hager
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