S. 4579

Colorado River Basin Conservation Act

Statement for the Record
Bureau of Reclamation
U.S. Department of the Interior 

Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources

S. 4579, Colorado River Basin Conservation Act

December 1, 2022

The Department of the Interior, through the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), appreciates the opportunity to submit this statement for the record on S. 4579, the Colorado River Basin Conservation Act. 

S. 4579 would extend the Secretary of the Interior’s (Secretary) authority to fund pilot projects to increase Colorado River System water to address effects of historic drought conditions. In practice, the bill would extend Reclamation’s Colorado River System Water Through Voluntary Water Conservation and Reductions in Use, Colorado River Basin (Pilot Program). The bill would also extend the reporting deadline, requiring the Secretary to submit a report by 2027 to Congress which evaluates the effectiveness of the Pilot Program projects and recommends to Congress whether the Pilot Program projects should be continued. The Department supports the development of additional system conservation agreements and reauthorization of this important drought conservation program. The Department recommends that the authorization should be expanded to include agreements that are developed after enactment.

Section 206 of the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2015 (43 U.S.C. 620 note; Public Law 113–235) authorized the Secretary to fund or participate in pilot projects to increase Colorado River System storage in Lake Mead and the initial units of Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) reservoirs to address the effects of historic drought conditions. Within the Upper Basin, Section 206 expanded the reservoirs where system conservation water created under the Pilot Program may be stored to include other reservoirs in the initial units of CRSP as well as Lake Powell.

From 2015 to 2018, the Pilot Program tested new approaches that reduced historic water use or losses and helped to determine if compensated, voluntary, and measurable reductions in consumptive use of Colorado River System water constitute a sufficiently cost-effective, robust, and feasible approach to mitigate the impacts of climate change and drought in the Colorado River Basin. Colorado River System water conserved through Pilot Program projects is for the sole purpose of increasing storage levels in Lakes Powell and Mead and will not accrue to the benefit or use of any individual user. 

The Colorado River and its tributaries are one of the most important natural resources in the United States. Approximately 1,400 miles long, flowing through the seven western states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and the United Mexican States (Mexico), the Colorado River System provides immeasurable economic and ecological values to the Basin States, Tribal Nations, and Mexico. The Colorado River Basin is in the 23rd year of a historic drought. Both Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the two largest reservoirs in the United States – are at historically low levels with a combined storage of 26 percent of capacity. While Reclamation and its partners have been successful in conserving water in the Colorado River System reservoirs, significant and additional conservation actions are required to protect the Colorado River system infrastructure and the long-term stability of the system. The system is at a tipping point.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $4 billion in funding specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought. In October 2022, the Department announced new drought mitigation funding opportunities to improve and protect the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River System. The newly created Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program, funded with an initial allocation through the Inflation Reduction Act, will help increase water conservation, improve water efficiency, and help prevent the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production.

The Department supports additional system conservation program activities in the Colorado River Basin that contribute to increased reservoir levels in Lakes Powell and Mead and recommends that such activities be continued, allowing for additional work to be accomplished on existing and future projects. For this reason, the Department appreciates the Committee’s consideration of extending important drought conservation programs through S. 4579, which will provide additional tools for Reclamation to take further actions within the Upper Basin. The widespread interest in system conservation activities and shared Pilot Program experience gained by Reclamation, state agencies, local funding agencies, NGOs, Colorado River water users, and tribes will serve as a platform for future collaboration on system conservation activities to help mitigate drought in the Colorado River Basin.

The Department supports the reauthorization of these drought conservation programs and we look forward to working with the Committee to further refine the language in support of these important programs.

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