It’s now clear that the Colorado River simply does not deliver as much water as we take from it. Fast, dramatic cuts—totaling up to 30% of all the water currently in use—are needed now if we’re going to avoid the “deadpool” conditions in Lake Mead and Lake Powell that would trap any remaining water behind dams. The urgency is clear, yet the seven Colorado River Basin states have repeatedly failed to agree on how to share the cuts.
On Oct. 12, the Department of the Interior announced one step toward a solution: the Lower Colorado Conservation and Efficiency Program. The program invites water users to propose new water conservation projects. In return, they’ll receive some of the $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act that’s been earmarked for water conservation in the West. Two parts of the program focus on short-term action for the immediate crisis; the third is focused on longer-term solutions.
There is a lot to like about Interior’s new program. It will help to reduce conflict by paying for voluntary conservation. One part offers a fixed price of $330 to $400 per acre-foot, making it easier for farmers, irrigation districts, tribes, and cities to decide whether (and how much) they want to participate at that price. The other part allows water users to propose both conservation actions and their asking price for agreeing to these actions. Water users will get to choose whether to opt in to cutbacks and at what level of compensation.
But the details are fuzzy. How much of the IRA funding will be allocated under the program, and how much will go to each component of it? How will proposals be selected? What happens if the program fails to attract enough conservation? Without clear answers, water users may be just as hesitant as they have been all summer, waiting for others to make the first move while hoping to get a better deal later on. This new program fails to meet the urgency of the current crisis.
There is another way to swiftly resolve the shortage—at least temporarily—while minimizing pain, conflict, and economic harm. Interior should spend the bulk of its IRA funds by conducting what’s called a reverse auction.