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Fri, Aug. 19

Column | Save the Colorado

The Colorado River is in crisis. There is an emergency need of two-to-four-million-acre feet of water in storage to save the river.

The 23-year megadrought on the river brings us to an unprecedented but expected Tier 2b shortage declaration for 2023. The August river modeling will show the water level in Lake Mead to be below elevation 1,045 feet above sea level in January which is the operating criteria for a Tier 2b shortage declaration.

At the June 14, 2022, U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, in response to Sen. Mark Kelly’s question about Colorado River operations, said Reclamation will make decisions for managing the river to protect the system if basin users are unable to reach a plan to keep an additional two to four-million-acre feet of water in Lake Mead by mid-August.

Reclamation officials continue to meet with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Central Arizona Water Conservation District, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Imperial Irrigation District, tribal leaders, the seven Colorado River basin states’ representatives and others to develop the mid-August target plan. There are no easy solutions, but a great deal of time and effort is being spent to reach consensus on how we move forward as a basin.

The Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona sees a large portion of that effort in the Yuma, Arizona area. Yuma County agriculture, through the Yuma County Agriculture Water Coalition, along with other lower basin users, seeks a four-year plan which avoids contract fallowing and water transfers, but requires mitigation compensation for voluntary cooperation. The proposal reduces Lake Mead depletions by one acre-foot per acre over the 925,000-acre lower basin agriculture acreage for roughly 925,000 acre-feet each year of the four-year program.

Farming proceeds with each of the 925,000 acres being farmed with one less acre-foot of water. Farmers will decide what and how much they plant. Crop decisions are governed in large part by available water. The one less acre-foot of water reduces crop production. During the winter of 2023-24 leafy green vegetables, normally abundantly available, will not be as available. This one-acre foot decrease has been estimated to have a potential economic loss of around $340 million to Yuma County agriculture.

While the Yuma agriculture industry feels such reductions under the proposed plan are challenging, significant increases in such reductions, i.e., taking more water from crop production, will result in devastating impacts to agriculturally dependent communities and support industries.

If this happens U.S. consumers would see significantly less leafy greens and vegetables in their grocery stores in the 2023-24 winter. The Yuma growing area provides the United States with 90% of its leafy green winter vegetables. That production cannot be replicated anywhere else.

When looking at Colorado River water use, common sense compels looking at all reductions in Colorado River water consumption. Everyone needs to reduce river use. For example, let us recover the nearly 4-million-acre feet of recharged water stored underground by city contractors; expand and implement municipal water reuse; and reduce outdoor watering and indoor water use.

Our food supply and food security depend on agriculture some of which is uniquely based in Yuma County. Our national security is maintained when we produce the food we eat.

Water and food are life! We must act accordingly.

(Chris Udall is the executive director of the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona.)

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