Scientists, agriculturalists sound alarm for federal action on Western drought at Senate hearing

Colorado's US Sen. Michael Bennet chaired subcommittee hearing on drought, water
blue river colorado aerial snow mapping
Posted at 2:23 PM, Jun 07, 2022

DENVER – The federal government needs to take quick and decisive actions and work through regional, state and local partnerships to address the worsening drought and water conditions in Colorado and the West, a panel of water scientists and agriculturalists told a Senate subcommittee chaired by Colorado’s Michael Bennet Tuesday.

Bennet and Ranking Member Roger Marshall, R-Kan, held the first Conservation, Climate, Forestry and Natural Resources subcommittee meeting in nearly a decade Tuesday morning, at which water scientists and officials from Colorado State University, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Western States Water Council and Ducks Unlimited testified.

Bennet said in an interview afterward that he and Marshall put the hearing together because of the dire conditions on the Colorado River system and the widespread western drought.

Sen. Michael Bennet on drought, water Senate subcommittee hearing

“This is a crisis that’s being caused by climate change. And we’re going to have to address it. So I thought it was really important for the first meeting of this subcommittee to be focused on the Colorado River and the drought in the Rocky Mountain West,” the senator said.

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, outlined the 2022 Drought Operations Plan approved this spring, which will send 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir down the basin to prop up water levels at Lake Powell, and discussed just how dire of a situation the Colorado River – the most endangered river in the U.S. – is in.

The megadrought in the West is the worst it has been in 1,200 years, scientists have determined. Mueller said there is only about 34% of storage capacity left in the reservoirs along the river, and that hotter temperatures in the area have exacerbated the drought and water shortages.

This year, the snowpack has melted a month earlier than it had in the basin, and runoff peaked at 60% of normal, Mueller said. Even when snowpack was better, at around 89% last year, the flow into Lake Powell was less than 37% of normal. He said the river was within months of hitting a level in Lake Powell where it would not be able to send water further south.

“The changes in the heat is just killing this river,” Mueller said.

Western Colorado has experienced a rise in temperatures of more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1985 but have greatly accelerated over the last decade, Mueller said. For every one-degree increase, a streamflow reduction of 3-9% follows, he added.

Mueller proposed adding strategic reservoirs in Colorado’s high mountain valleys, backed by federal financing, and more strategic flow releases to try to keep as much water in the basin as possible.

He said data shows the river basin is expected to see another 30% reduction in river flows in coming years, which would amount to a 50% reduction of flows compared to 30 years ago, and will mean increasing conflict between growing cities in the basin and the national food supply.

He warned that agriculture in the Colorado River basin “will be greatly diminished” if that happens: “A situation that is dire, frankly,” as he said.

As an example, he said most salad that people eat during the winter call comes from southern Arizona and California, which he said could be threatened if the river basin continues to dry up at the same rates.

“I’d say 20 or 30 years from now, the river basin will be a starkly different place if we don’t act quickly and act intelligently,” Mueller said.

He told the panel that the effects of the western climate crisis are only starting to be seen. He said programs that federal officials work on – much of the hearing centered around projects that could go into a 2023 Farm Bill – needed to support “productive” instead of “hobby” agriculture.

“We can’t remain idle. Wishing for snow and rain is no longer an adequate plan at any level of decision-making,” Mueller said. “Decisive action at the federal level is needed.”

Dr. Courtney Schultz, an associate professor at the Warner College of Natural Resources at CSU in Fort Collins, told senators about the forest and watershed impacts from the ongoing drought and climate change.

Schultz said the continuing drought could cost an extra $500 million in agricultural damages over the next 30 years and millions more in damage from flash flooding and landslides after forest fires, which have increased in size and intensity in recent years because of the climate change, she said.

She praised the U.S. Department of Agriculture Climate Hubs program and said the government would be smart to authorize more of them so regional groups can work together on proactive forest and fire management – for which she called for an additional $40-60 billion in investments over the next 10 years to try to address the “monumental” task. She said integrating more universities into USDA programs could help bring together regional partners when it comes to drought planning, training new workforces and communication.

She said more prescribed fire and other forest thinning efforts would be key in preventing larger wildfires, which have increased threefold in high-elevation forests in recent years. The U.S. Forest Service paused prescribed burns last month while it reviews the program after several wildfires this year were found to have started as prescribed burns, including the Simms Fire on the Western Slope.

She said she hopes Congress and the federal government can bolster collaboration to invest with local communities, tribes and states to create fire-ready communities – especially in areas where fire-prevention efforts have not been well coordinated or funded – to maintain long-term forest ecosystems in the West.

“We can adapt to climate change in the meantime, but fundamentally, we have to reduce carbon emissions,” Schultz said of the keys to combatting climate change.

Others who testified at the hearing included Ducks Unlimited Senior Scientist Dr. Ellen Herbert; Earl Lewis, the chief engineer at the Kansas Division of Water Resources and a member of the Western States Water Council; and Tom Willis, the owner of T&O Farms in Liberal, Kansas.

The entire group stressed that flexibility would be key in moving forward with some of the proposals discussed Tuesday and with the Farm Bill that will be in the works – especially for agricultural producers who will need to adapt to new technology that can better conserve water but might need incentives and proof of performance to do so.

But they also said that the federal government should do better to cut down on red tape when it comes to certain water infrastructure efforts, like the contracting process for construction projects, such as repairing or building water pipelines, and compliance requirements when dealing with differing federal agencies.

Among the other key priorities the panel told senators they would like to see in the Farm Bill, the group stressed post-fire funding and more natural and man-made infrastructure in the high country of watersheds would be key, as would more NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding for producers and forest managers, and better data collection methods regarding water conservation in agriculture.

Bennet said in the post-hearing interview he felt it had met his expectations and elicited uniform responses from across the panel.

“Everybody was ringing the alarm on the fact that this is a serious issue and it’s not going away,” Bennet said. “And that we’re going to have to figure out how to create some very complicated partnerships at the local level, with the state, among the states, and then with the federal government being able to make some investment to support, hopefully, a consensus that will emerge among the states about how to deal with this drought that’s the worst we’ve seen in 1,200 years.”

Bennet said he strongly agreed with the notion from the panel that flexibility would be key in the work moving forward.

"Agriculture is critical to who we are as a state. It’s critical to our economy, it’s critical to our culture, it’s fundamental to who we are as Coloradans,” he said. “And we’re going to have to feed a growing population of people too. And that’s all the more reason why we’ve got to figure out how to innovate, because they’re not making any more water. And it’s not getting any less challenging, but we’re going to have to get through it. And I think we will.”

Bennet said collaboration – and breaking through the partisan gridlock often seen surrounding issues in the Senate – would be key in building trust around what federal lawmakers can do to address the issues at hand.

“When I think about the water resources in Colorado, I think about that as something that we all have in common. Every single one of us is downstream from those precious watersheds in the Rocky Mountains, and every single one of us, one way or another, is facing the scarcity that’s resulting from the worst drought in 1,200 years,” he said.

The senator said he and other western lawmakers will be key in convincing others from the eastern part of the country that more needed to be done in allocating resources to the West to address the water issues – which could lead to what he said could involve "a really complicated and, I’m sure, at time torturous negotiation” to reach a consensus among lawmakers.

“Maybe this is a place where we really can put our political partisanship to the side and figure out how to do the right thing for the next generation of Coloradans and the next generation of the American West so that we can preserve this economy for another 100 or 200 or 300 years," Bennet said. "That’s really what’s at stake, and I think we can do it.”