After the Biden administration on Tuesday released proposals to cut water allotments to the states that depend on the shrinking Colorado River, a progressive advocacy group criticized federal officials for failing to address an underlying cause of the region's hydrological plight: the overexploitation of water resources by the corporate agriculture and fossil fuel industries.
"Any legitimate plan for the Colorado River must directly confront a key driver of the crisis in the first place: the overuse and abuse of limited water resources by big agribusiness and fossil fuel corporations—the very same industries contributing to climate chaos in the first place," Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter said in a statement.
The seven Colorado River Basin states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming—have missed multiple federal deadlines to finalize an interstate water conservation pact. Following months of fruitless state-level attempts to forge an agreement on how to preserve the region's waning water resources, the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation proposed two solutions in a draft analysis published Tuesday. The agency also explored the devastating implications of a third alternative—doing nothing.
As The Associated Press reported: "One option would be more beneficial to California and some tribes along the river that have high-priority rights to the river’s water. The second option is likely to be more favorable to Nevada and Arizona, who share the river's Lower Basin with California and say it's time for an approach that more fairly spreads the pain of cuts. That approach would force cuts on a proportional basis, when water levels at key reservoirs along the river dip below a certain point."
The two plans unveiled by the Interior Department "would achieve at least 2 million acre-feet of cuts in 2024, on top of existing cuts that states and other users previously agreed to," AP noted. "States, tribes, and other water users now have until May 30 to comment before federal officials announce their formal decision."
"Federal and state officials must work together to protect the Colorado River as a public trust resource and prioritize the well-being of Western communities before corporate profits."
Since the Colorado River Compact was originally signed in 1922, the 1,450-mile waterway—a lifeline for 40 million people in the western U.S. and northern Mexico—has been overallocated. Making matters worse, historic drought conditions intensified by the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency have exacerbated scarcity, jeopardizing drinking water provision and power generation throughout the region, including in the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, Denver, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City.
The amount of water being withdrawn from the Colorado River has declined since 2000 even as more people have moved to the area. But with less water flowing into the river amid the West's 23-year megadrought—more severe than anything seen in the preceding 1,200 years—recent reductions in per capita water consumption are insufficient. Meanwhile, Wall Street investment firms are looking to capitalize on the pending calamity by buying and selling rights to the river's dwindling water supplies.
In light of this alarming predicament, Hauter said Tuesday that "federal and state officials must work together to protect the Colorado River as a public trust resource and prioritize the well-being of Western communities before corporate profits."
"The Biden administration and governors must find the political will to stop the expansion of water-intensive factory farming, including megadairies and egregiously thirsty crops like tree nuts and alfalfa," said Hauter. "They must halt these practices and chart a course to a more sustainable and resilient future, one that aligns with the reality of climate change and our precarious water future."
As much as 80% of the Colorado River's water is currently "put towards agriculture, and 80% of that supply is used for crops like alfalfa, which is largely used as feedstock for cattle," according to Food & Water Watch. "The current framework to cut water uses, however, focuses on overall allocations and makes only a passing reference to the actual purpose that water is used."
"Each industrial, municipal, and agricultural user should be held to the highest industry standards in handling, using, and disposing of water," the watchdog added. "There is precious little water left to waste."
In February, after California refused to sign onto the other six Colorado River Basin states' blueprint to collectively slash water use by 15%—the bare minimum experts say is necessary to prevent water levels in dangerously depleted reservoirs from dropping even further—Food & Water Watch published research detailing "the toll that corporate agriculture and fossil fuel drilling is taking on the state's beleaguered water supplies."
"The Biden administration and governors must find the political will to stop the expansion of water-intensive factory farming, including megadairies and egregiously thirsty crops like tree nuts and alfalfa."
As the group explained, a huge expansion since 2010 in the number of acres devoted to growing almonds and pistachios required 523 billion additional gallons of water for irrigation in 2021 compared with 2017—an increase equivalent to the recommended indoor water use of 34.1 million people, or 87% of California's population. In addition, irrigation for the lucrative alfalfa industry devours nearly 1 trillion gallons of water per year, and corporate megadairies guzzle nearly 52 billion gallons of water annually. With large quantities of California's nut crops, alfalfa, and dairy products being exported around the globe, billions of gallons of the region's sorely needed water resources are effectively shipped overseas.
The report also pointed out that planet-heating oil and gas producers in California consumed 3 billion gallons of freshwater from 2018 to 2021. But California-based firms are not alone in mishandling the Colorado River's water resources. Food & Water Watch has also estimated that New Mexico's megadairies consume 365 million gallons of every year while generating substantial amounts of pollution.
Food & Water Watch has long called for implementing just and sustainable water policies that don't let the industries most responsible for the West's water crisis off the hook.
Last August, after Colorado River Basin states failed for the first time to reach an accord for reducing water use by at least 15%, the group's research director, Amanda Starbuck, urged policymakers to "eliminate rampant corporate water abuse before it's too late."
"By switching to renewable energy sources like solar and wind, California could save 98% of the water currently needed for its fossil fuel production," Starbuck said at the time. "And by transitioning away from industrial megadairies, thirsty crops like almonds and pistachios, and engaging in regenerative farming, California will gain enormous water savings that could serve small farmers and domestic households."
Food & Water Watch's February report implored Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom to "use executive and emergency powers to immediately stop egregious misuses" of water.
"This includes preventing the planting of new almond and alfalfa acres on the salty, dry west side of the San Joaquin Valley, banning new megadairies, and ending new oil and gas drilling," researchers wrote.