Opinion: Time to designate Rio Grande Basin as eligible for federal funding to help restore San Luis Valley water resources

The Colorado River may continue to dominate headlines, but the Rio Grande continues to grapple with long-term drought and declining water supplies.

Fortunately, a group of water users and stakeholders in Colorado’s San Luis Valley are being proactive in pursuing unprecedented federal funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act to increase the pace and scale of multi-benefit water projects to mitigate the effects of drought, encourage sustainable groundwater management, and enhance fish and wildlife habitat.

The demand for funding in the Rio Grande headwaters remains significant. The updated Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan (BIP) identifies securing adequate funding for project development and implementation as a key challenge. Altogether, the BIP identifies 75 priority projects with an estimated cost of $164.5 million. This total does not include other project opportunities identified in regional plans.

A group of water users in the region have been compiling a suite of multi-benefit water projects known as the Upper Rio Grande Water Resiliency Initiative. The objective of the Initiative is to secure at least $400 million in funding to support the design and implementation of comprehensive, innovative, and collaborative projects that serve water resiliency objectives holistically across sectors, including agriculture, environment, recreation, and community needs. Identified projects include scaling the adoption of groundwater conservation easements, a tool pioneered by Colorado Open Lands and the centerpiece of the recently introduced, bipartisan Voluntary Groundwater Conservation Act. Other projects include riparian habitat restoration, infrastructure improvements, collaborative water-sharing agreements, augmentation development, and reservoir construction and repairs.

The scale of these needs underscores that addressing water resource challenges in the San Luis Valley will require more resources than those available at the local and state level. Fortunately, some promising federal funding opportunities on the horizon can provide a down payment on project needs in theregion. Particularly, local water users are working with national organizations such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) to secure drought mitigation funding through the Inflation Reduction Act to support these projects. The IRA authorized $4 billion through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for drought mitigation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other western watersheds “experiencing comparable levels of drought.”

Recently, Reclamation issued a call for public input on the designation of these other western watersheds. TRCP, with ten other stakeholders working in the Upper Rio Grande, submitted a letter requesting that Reclamation designate the Rio Grande as a basin eligible for drought IRA funding. The letter also requests that IRA funding be made available to support a diverse range of drought mitigation tools including riparian and stream restoration projects which have been demonstrated to produce drought resilience benefits.

Overall, we encourage Reclamation to designate the Rio Grande as an eligible watershed for IRA funding and to employ a transparent decision-making process to work with state and local stakeholders to align these funds to support priority projects. How Reclamation implements these provisions will directly influence how the Rio Grande community can scale efforts to adapt to the water supply challenges it is experiencing and provide water security moving forward.

However, we also recognize that the IRA will not meet all these needs. Not with the collective demands for federal drought assistance coming from the Colorado River Basin, Great Salt Lake, California’s Central Valley, and Klamath River Basin to name just a few. No, the Rio Grande will need longer-term, more durable funding at the federal and state level to address water resource challenges in the region along with further recognition from federal and state decision-makers regarding both the socio-economic and environmental importance of the Rio Grande to both Colorado and the country and the need for greater collaboration and coordination to utilize funding to address these challenges.

 Alexander Funk is the Director of Water Resources at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Contact: afunk@trcp.org.


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