August 16 marks one year since President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law, the same day the Bureau of Reclamation announced “unprecedented water cuts” for the Colorado River. The Water Hub took this opportunity to do a quick media scan of IRA news so far this year and found that mentions of the IRA climate policies for greenhouse gas reductions, clean energy, and electric vehicles make up the lion’s share of environmental coverage, while mentions of the IRA and drought resilience or the Colorado River paled in comparison.
This makes sense when the slice of IRA money allocated to Western water is just 1% of the $400 billion funding bill, but it feels like an important opportunity to look back at how IRA dollars have been spent on water so far, and look ahead to some long-term solutions local leaders are pushing for.
IRA drought investments to date
The $4B in drought relief funds Western leaders secured in the IRA have helped to facilitate urgent short-term cuts in water usage and have the potential to support long-term resilience as the federal government, seven Colorado River Basin states, Tribes, and Mexico develop a new management framework for the river, to begin when current agreements end in 2026. As
Investments announced to date include:
- $1.2B to pay farmers, irrigation districts, cities and Tribes to leave water in Colorado River reservoirs through 2026.
- $250M to Salton Sea restoration efforts that will reduce toxic dust plaguing nearby communities as water levels drop and expose more shoreline.
- $233M (from a combination of IRA and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) funds) is going to the Gila River Indian community to fund conservation, new pipelines, and solar-covered canals.
- $161M to fund Bureau of Land Management Restoration Landscapes, which focus on restoring forests, wetlands, and river corridors to increase resilience to drought and wildfire.
- $125M to expand the Upper Colorado River Basin System Conservation pilot to support voluntary, temporary, and compensated reductions in water use.
- $120M to the Tribal Climate Resilience Program (through a combination of IRA, BIL, and annual appropriations) to support Tribal Nations adapt to climate change and mitigate the impacts of drought and fire.
Opportunities to center solutions
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and IRA together include more than $60 billion for water projects, from replacing lead pipes in homes and schools to restoring wetlands in flood zones, and building drinking and wastewater systems on Tribal lands and in rural communities. Yet, climate and water coverage are too often missing the opportunity to connect the dots between the impacts of climate change, water infrastructure, resilience, and these federal investments for their audiences.
- Extreme heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States, and while a new study found 41 million U.S. residents live in “urban heat islands,” few of the resulting news stories looked deeply into how cities can add trees, parks and other “green infrastructure” to reduce flooding, replenish underground aquifers, and filter air and water pollution. Combined, BIL and IRA have billions of dollars for flood and drought resilience, disaster preparedness, urban forestry that can be used to fund water and urban greening projects that do double duty for cooling.
- While federal agencies are pursuing an all-of-the-above response to the West’s water challenges, some advocates and experts are urging a greater focus on nature-based solutions that build resilience to climate change. Stanford’s Felicia Marcus outlined the need for more forest and meadow restoration in this report, and a new website just launched by conservation and outdoor recreation organizations highlights benefits, project examples, and funding opportunities for the Colorado River.
- Farming and ranching use 79% of Colorado River water, which means agricultural water savings have to be part of our western water solution. While a big chunk of IRA dollars are going to help farmers temporarily leave water in the Colorado River, many Basin farmers are already experimenting with longer-term solutions like switching to lower water grains to feed both people and livestock, and using technology to grow more crops per drop. The Farm Bill is a key (and real time) opportunity to support the shift to more drought (and heat, flood and fire) resilient agriculture.
For the last six months, the Water Hub has been meeting with partners, researching, and designing a new storytelling campaign to showcase how federal water investments are at work in ecosystems and communities, while working on our latest water public opinion research. Suffice to say, we’ve got big updates headed to our community soon!
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