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Coordination could save Colorado River basin

Drought has taken a record toll on the western United States, affecting millions of Americans and posing a serious threat to local communities.

From families to farmers to wildlife and ecosystems, much of the Colorado River basin is impacted by drought conditions and the economic and health consequences that come with it.

At the heart of compromised water resources is the Colorado River system, and unfortunately, demand for water in the river basin now exceeds supply – a stark reality only made worse by the ongoing drought.

A graphic picture of what’s at stake is revealed by an Arizona State University study showing that nearly two-thirds of the Southwest’s economic value is dependent on the Colorado River. Hanging in the balance of the health of the Colorado River system are more than $1.4 trillion in economic activity, $870 billion in wages and 16 million jobs annually.

Fortunately, President Obama recently issued a memorandum calling on federal agencies to ramp up the nation’s capabilities to accomplish long-term drought resilience, ordering agencies to collaborate on drought-related activities in key watersheds, with an aim to maximize the combined benefits of investments made by federal water conservation programs.

The president further spells out what the agencies need to do in his Long-Term Drought Resilience Federal Action Plan, requiring that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation extend their successful coordination of water-efficiency programs underway in California’s Central Valley to other basins suffering from drought.

BOR’s WaterSMART makes funding available to irrigation districts for improvements in the systems that deliver water to farmers. NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, in turn, enables funding for the farmers to make on-farm conservation improvements. Coordinating the programs would yield water savings that are considerable.

What we most need now is for the agencies to develop a collaborative strategy to aid communities crippled by drought throughout the Colorado River basin.

Of the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River for drinking water, Latinos make up a large percentage. For Latinos in the basin, the issues of diminishing water supplies and the prospect of our rivers slowing to a trickle are a very personal matter. The Colorado River has been at the heart of our culture for centuries. For us, protecting the river is not just smart water management; it also honors our heritage.

We believe there are sizable gains in water efficiency and savings that could be achieved with the BOR and NRCS working collaboratively in action throughout the Colorado River basin.

With the bureau focused on water delivery systems and NRCS working with landowners to effect water conservation and efficiency practices, the substantial water savings would help keep rivers flowing and sustain wildlife and habitat.

We ask that the White House bring this enlightened collaborative strategy for agency synergy to the communities so direly affected by drought in the Colorado River basin.

Latinos in the Southwest cherish the Colorado River as one would a brother, and we see that the river is in jeopardy, placing all of the communities that depend on it in danger.

In this spirit, we must take care of the Colorado River, so that it continues to be a vital source of economic prosperity and health for the people, wildlife and ecosystems that depend on it.

In these extraordinarily dry times, we need help and the president has answered the call. Now it’s time for NRCS and BOR to take action and begin to collaborate in the Colorado River basin.

Also signed by Jessie Ulibarri, Colorado state senator; Deborah Ortega, Denver councilwoman; and Paul D. Lopez, Denver councilman. The authors are members of the Nuestro Rio Regional Water Caucus.