An agreement between the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and California’s Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to conserve Colorado River water will unlock $70 million in federal funding for water conservation projects to protect the Salton Sea in Southern California.
The funds will help California’s Salton Sea Management Plan, which includes habitat restoration and dust suppression on 30,000 acres of exposed lakebed and areas that are expected to be exposed within four years.
The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, sits miles from where the Colorado River crosses into Mexico and serves as a runoff area for farms in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. It has been evaporating over the past few years, and the exposed lakebed releases toxic dust that has caused respiratory issues for nearby residents.
The $70 million is part of a total of $250 million from the Inflation Reduction Act and complements $583 million the state has committed to date for Salton Sea projects.
Under the complicated agreement, DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation will pay the IID $77.6 million to conserve 100,000 acre-feet of water in 2023 in Nevada’s Lake Mead, which has been suffering from critically low water levels from recent droughts. One acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons or enough to cover an acre of land with 1 foot of water.
IID is the nation’s largest irrigation district, supplying almost 500,000 acres of farmland just north of the Mexico border with water from the Colorado River. It is working with Reclamation on plans to conserve over 800,000 acre-feet of water over the next three years at Lake Mead along the Colorado River System.
Lake Mead is located southeast of Las Vegas behind the Hoover Dam and provides water for 40 million people. The lake has experienced its driest period on record since 2000 and is near critical levels. The IID’s efforts to conserve 100,000 acre-feet would increase the elevation of Lake Mead by 1.5 feet, the IID reported.
“Addressing the drought crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck moment and close collaboration among federal, state, Tribal and local communities,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a news release. “IID’s commitment to system conservation is vital as we work to strengthen the stability of the entire Colorado River Basin.”
IID’s efforts to conserve water from the Colorado River are part of its On-Farm Efficiency Conservation Program in which it partners with growers in the Imperial Valley for conservation. This includes advanced irrigation technologies, sustainable farming practices and the use of sprinklers and drip irrigation systems. Additionally, the IID renegotiated an agreement with the San Diego County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of California to keep 50,000 acre-feet of water at Lake Mead instead of transferring to the SDCWA.
“As these near-term conservation programs stabilize Lake Mead and the whole Colorado River system, water agencies across the region are working together to chart a sustainable future for the Basin,” Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said in a news release.
Arizona, California and Nevada have also agreed through the Lower Basin Plan to conserve 3 million acre-feet of water in the Colorado River System by 2026.
Several federal investments through the IRA are helping agencies with water conservation to support the Salton Sea, Lake Mead and the Colorado River System:
- $63.4 million for seven new contracts in Arizona to conserve water in Lake Mead. This is in addition to 11 other contracts with the state announced earlier in 2023.
- $50 million through the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program to increase water conservation and improve water efficiency. The IRA will provide similar investments in 2024 and 2025.
- $233 million in water conservation funding for the Gila River Indian Community and protect reservoir storage along the Colorado River System and expand water reuse
Funding water conservation efforts is a key focus for Reclamation, which plans to invest $8.3 billion over five years through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
UPDATE: This story has been updated with details about federal funding to conserve the Salton Sea.
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Photo by the Bureau of Reclamation