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Sinema’s last-minute push on Democrats’ climate bill added $4 billion to combat Western drought

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When Sen. Joe Manchin III and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer landed a surprise agreement on a healthcare, climate and tax bill last month, all but one Senate Democrat accepted the deal rather than risk collapse with further negotiation.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the inscrutable Arizona Democrat who has at times voted against her party’s demands, staked her vote on two changes. Most attention focused on her push to eliminate a proposed tax on wealthy investors.

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But Sinema’s last-minute efforts also added $4 billion to address the water crisis along the Colorado River as the region endures its most intense drought in centuries, a 23-year run of extreme dryness compounded by the effects of climate change.

The funding is “absolutely critical for Southern California, particularly in the inland areas,” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.).

Senators from other Western states had been pushing for drought aid for months, hoping to insert it into a major bill.

But Sinema’s leverage was key because she was the only one willing to put her “yes” vote on the Democrats’ long-delayed bill on the line. Her only concession was reducing her original demand for $5 billion.

Democrats say she helped her cause by demanding something that benefited many states — not just her own — and included many politically vulnerable colleagues.

The drought money was officially announced by three Western Democrats who are up for reelection this fall: Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

But when asked where credit lies, Padilla said Sinema, “first and foremost.”

The House on Friday is expected to pass the measure, sending it to Biden for his signature.

Much of the $4 billion is expected to go toward addressing the Colorado River’s historic shortfall, including paying farmers and others to voluntarily use less water. It will also fund conservation efforts and environmental restoration projects, such as controlling dust and restoring aquatic habitat around the shrinking Salton Sea, which is fed by Colorado River water.

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The legislation includes funds to help Native American tribes respond to drought, adapt to climate change and build water infrastructure projects.

“This is, I think, a very big deal, especially given that this $4 billion was sort of tacked on at the 11th hour,” said Alex Funk, director of water resources for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It’s very specifically tailored to give priority to the Colorado River Basin.”

How the $4 billion will be divided and spent will be up to the Bureau of Reclamation as well as states, tribes and public entities.

“The first provision is the compensation for voluntary reduction and diversion of water. It needs to be done,” said Cortez Masto.

The Colorado River, which supplies seven Western states and northern Mexico, is chronically overused and has been ravaged since 2000 by a “megadrought” that research shows is being substantially worsened by global warming.

Its largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, have dropped to record low levels and now stand nearly three-fourths empty.

The federal government in June took the unprecedented step of calling for emergency cuts in water use to prevent reservoirs from dropping to critically low levels. Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a congressional hearing that water use should be reduced by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet next year, the equivalent of roughly 15% to 30% of total annual diversions in the U.S. and Mexico.

That call for urgent measures, along with federal officials’ warnings that they could unilaterally impose cuts if necessary, has led to a series of closed-door negotiations among representatives of water districts that supply cities and farms across the Southwest.

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But until days ago, the question of where to obtain sufficient funds to support water-saving efforts had been unresolved.

Funk said the funding should help address some of the immediate challenges along the river, including long-standing concerns in California’s Imperial Valley about lung-damaging dust blowing from the retreating shorelines of the Salton Sea.

Leaders of the Imperial Irrigation District, which controls the single largest share of the Colorado River, have said protection of the Salton Sea saline lake is a “necessary precondition” to addressing the river’s problems.

Funk said including funds for the Salton Sea — described in the legislation as an “inland water body” — was a “linchpin issue to getting Southern California interests on board.”

Growers in the Imperial Valley and in neighboring Yuma, Ariz., have been discussing proposals for taking less water. Under one proposal released by Arizona farmers, participating growers would forgo one acre-foot of water for each acre of farmland, generating roughly 925,000 acre-feet of water savings.

Growers would not leave land fallow but rather would “decide what and how much to plant,” according to the proposal, enabling them to make crop decisions based on how much they need to cut irrigation.

“We’re optimistic,” said Chris Udall, executive director of the Agribusiness and Water Council of Arizona, adding that leaders of Arizona irrigation districts have agreed the goals in the proposal are feasible.

“Anything more than that probably would be curtains for a lot of the farmers. As it is, the U.S. and Canada are probably going to see less produce on the shelves,” Udall said.

Farmers in the Imperial Valley and Yuma produce much of the country’s winter vegetables, as well as hay for cattle and other crops.

In the three states of the river’s Lower Basin — California, Arizona and Nevada — about 75% of the water is used for agriculture.

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“It’s extremely helpful that there is a big source of funding that could be used to compensate those water users,” said Sarah Porter, director of Arizona State University’s Kyl Center for Water Policy.

Farmers in Yuma have proposed being paid $1,500 per acre-foot of water each year they temporarily forgo, Porter said, while some growers in the Imperial Valley have proposed a higher amount. At those prices, however, $4 billion over the next four years wouldn’t be nearly enough to meet the federal government’s reduction goal.

“There’s going to have to be more negotiation over the price tag,” Porter said. “And the ultimate price tag probably won’t be as high as $1,500 an acre-foot.”

Porter accompanied Sinema and water officials as they toured Hoover Dam on Monday. She said long-term questions remain about how to bring the water supply and demand into balance.

“Chances are, four years of compensated conservation, it will get us out of this emergency situation, but it’s not going to solve our problem for the long term,” Porter said. “We have to figure out a way to be relying on less water from the Colorado River.”

Managers of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California are also considering how to take part in reductions.

MWD General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said the district’s officials worked with Padilla and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on the bill language, ensuring that some funding would be available to support conservation measures in urban areas, such as cash rebates for property owners who remove grass.

Haberkorn reported from Washington and James from Phoenix.

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