Salton Sea cleanup at risk in fight for Colorado River water

California communities exposed to dangerous dust from a drying lake bed have found themselves at the center of tensions between Arizona and California over how to conserve water along the overloaded Colorado River.

U.S. Senator Mark Kelly, a re-election Democrat from Arizona, wants the federal government to withhold money for the environmental cleanup of the Salton Sea until California agrees to use less from its part of the river. He also blamed the US Bureau of Reclamation for not knowing when and how it will act if the seven western states that depend on the river fail to drastically reduce their use.

“We’re out of time,” Kelly wrote Tuesday in a letter to the US Department of the Interior. “The longer the Department waits to push for an agreement … the harder this crisis will be to resolve, only leading to more difficult choices and litigation.”

In June, federal officials said states needed to drastically reduce their use because major reservoirs risked falling so low they could no longer generate hydroelectricity or supply water users. But states passed the August deadline without a plan. Congress has spent up to $4 billion in part to pay farmers and cities to use less water, but its impact remains unclear.

Much attention is paid to California, the greatest holder of the river’s water and the last to lose in times of scarcity. State users recently said they would reduce usage by up to 9% depending on federal money and a plan to clean up toxic dust around the Salton Sea.

The lake was formed in 1905 when the river overflowed and is fed primarily by runoff from farms in southeastern California. As it dries, the wind lifts particles that deteriorate air quality. When farms use less river water, fewer excess flows flow into the sea.

California officials and the Alianza Coachella Valley community group were surprised by Kelly’s letter. They said it was unfair to use communities exposed to environmental damage as bargaining chips.

“The Colorado River system is in crisis, what we need is less finger pointing and more water conservation,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Agency of Natural Resources.

Kelly’s letter comes amid a tough re-election bid against Republican Blake Masters, a contest that will help determine control of the US Senate.

As farmers and cities across the West face dwindling water supplies, concern over Arizona’s future access to water has become a major issue, especially in cities. like Phoenix and Tucson.

Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado, Tribes, and Mexico also hold river water rights. It helps provide drinking water to around 40 million people as well as countless farms that grow vegetables and crops for the nation.

The latest federal projections show that the Lake Powell Dam – a critical reservoir on the Arizona-Utah border – will not be able to generate power by the end of next year if rains and falls of snow are minimal.

Already, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico have suffered mandatory supply cuts. California would eventually be included in these cuts if Lake Powell and Lake Mead continue to decline as expected.

The savings offered by California in October — 400,000 acre-feet of water per year — are about one-fifth of the minimum amount federal officials estimate is needed to cross the basin.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said Wednesday he did not view California’s offer as a firm commitment. Arizona has saved water beyond its mandatory cuts since June, but hasn’t decided how much more it will offer, he said by email.

Any federal money given to California to treat the Salton Sea should be tied to a state pledge to keep water in Lake Mead, Buschatzke said.

Withholding money for cleanup projects around the lake “would affect real communities already suffering from higher rates of asthma and other health conditions,” Silvia Paz, executive director of Alianza Coachella Valley, said in a statement.

Kelly said Wednesday that California was wrong to demand money for the Salton Sea to resolve a crisis on the Colorado River.

“I’m not going to let California get away with this,” Kelly said after a campaign stop in Phoenix. “You can’t hold the Colorado River hostage with funding for something else. It doesn’t matter what it is. I mean, this is water we’re talking about.

Kelly also wants clarification on when California will be restricted in taking the water it stores in the lake.

The Department of the Interior declined to comment on Kelly’s letter, spokesman Tyler Cherry said.

Masters, Kelly’s Republican rival, is calling for an even more aggressive confrontation with California, saying during a recent debate, “we can solve this problem with technology and sharp elbows.”

“Why is California even putting its straw in the Colorado River?” Masters said, suggesting the state should instead remove salt from seawater to increase its supply.

Report by Cooper and Ronayne for the Associated Press.

Los Angeles Times

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