WASHINGTON – Despite above-average snowpack, Southwest Colorado remains in a severe drought.
U.S. House lawmakers from several Western states, including Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, are considering a bill that increases the scope of federal grants to combat water scarcity.
Access to water is “quite literally a lifeline” that depends on access to strong funding for research and solutions, Neguse said in a House Natural Resources hearing Tuesday.
The bill gives state governments, Native American tribes and nonprofit organizations the right to declare drought emergencies and access federal relief funds. States can then use the money to improve groundwater access by drilling wells into aquifers.
The new legislation also focuses on wildlife conservation as a vital part of restoring water supplies in the West, said Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M.
A holistic approach to preserving and restoring water sources means they are less likely to be contaminated by chemicals from farms or businesses, making water safer for the community and the surrounding wildlife, Small said.
Climate change causes drought, and wildlife protections help combat climate change, said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.
Without conserving the water resources, they will be depleted, and the water quality will be poor.
Small introduced the Western Water Security Act late last year, when the West faced severe dry conditions.
Funding for innovation in water technology Water desalination, or removing salt and other minerals from water, is an important way to diversify water supply, especially when wildfire ash contaminates reservoirs, Small said.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, also supports desalination as a source of clean water. Much of the water that flows to drainage basins in Colorado has a high salt and mineral content.
The more that can be done to protect local water quality is important, particularly given the severe drought conditions over the past couple of years, Tipton said in an interview with The Durango Herald.
Tipton said he would support federal grants for desalination, as well as weather- and irrigation-monitoring projects if there is a need and if federal resources are available.
“We cannot overstate the importance of water for our state,” Tipton said.
There is a desalination project on the Dolores River, but the process of injecting salt back into the ground has caused detectable earthquakes in the area in recent years, including a 4.4 magnitude earthquake in Paradox Basin in 2013.
Underground space for saline injection is also running low, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would need another method to remove salt and other minerals from the water to keep the project operating.
How this bill is differentGrayford Payne, an official from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the bill would duplicate programs that already exist under the Environmental Protection Agency.
However, the new legislation would reduce the cost of research into precipitation-monitoring systems and the construction of water-storage areas like reservoirs for rural communities, Payne testified.
Watershed management, not just storage, will lead to better water security, said Gary Esslinger, manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
New technologies could help rural counties track storms for better rainwater capture and monitor fields to avoid over-irrigation, Esslinger testified.
While EPA programs do give grants to rural communities, many applicants are excluded from the federal government’s definition of “rural,” which caps populations at 50,000. La Plata County, for example, is estimated to have more than 55,000 people, according to the U.S. Census.
Under the new bill, both public and private water systems are eligible for funding from federal grants. For example, the small, private wells of those living in rural areas rely on groundwater, but they don’t currently qualify for federal relief programs.
Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said some rural populations can’t afford the water utility rate increases that are needed to fix clean drinking water problems. Federal grants, Farrell said, would go a long way.
Water infrastructure operations and maintenance costs are not covered by current federal programs, and new legislation that does cover those costs would be a huge improvement, Farrell testified.
The current system also puts local decision-makers, who have little political capital to fix water infrastructure, at odds with some residents, Farrell said.
Her testimony comes soon after reports that the Western Slope’s Colorado River District may increase taxes in the 15 counties it serves in order to fund water projects.
Why it matters for ColoradoWhile aquifers are not a big part of the agricultural picture in Southwest Colorado, water is an important issue that farmers need to understand from a large-scale perspective in the West, Cortez agriculture expert Bob Bragg told the Herald.
The San Juan-Chama Project operating in Colorado augments water flow to New Mexico by diverting water from the San Juan River into the Rio Grande, and “moving water is not easy,” Bragg said.
Many residents in Southwest Colorado rely on groundwater for their drinking water, whether provided by a public water system or a private well. Drought can cause groundwater levels to fall low enough that water wells go dry. When this happens, people have to find an alternate source of water.
“Water shortage causes stress and disruption that degrades the health of the individuals affected and also of the community as a whole,” said Brian Devine, environmental health director at San Juan Basin Public Health, in an email to the Herald.
Gus Westerman, the Dolores County Agriculture Extension agent, said weather patterns are different now than they have been historically, making it tricky for farmers to navigate water usage.
But “good planning and financial management are key to a successful business” for farmers, Westerman said. It falls on the farmer to have contingency plans.
Some farmers in the area already use funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to mitigate risk during drought, Westerman said.
As for whether the USDA funding is enough, he said, “depends who you ask.”
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.[email protected]This article was reposted Jan. 30 to report that Jared Huffman is a U.S. representative.