Interior secretary: Drought demands investment, conservation

DENVER -- Confronting the historic drought that has a firm grip on the American West requires a heavy federal infrastructure investment to protect existing water supplies but also will depend on efforts at all levels of government to reduce demand by promoting water efficiency and recycling, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Thursday.

Haaland told reporters in Denver that the Biden administration's proposed fiscal year 2022 budget includes a $1.5 billion investment in the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water and power in the Western states, and more than $54 million for states, tribes and communities to upgrade infrastructure and water planning projects.

"Drought doesn't just impact one community. It affects all of us -- from farmers and ranchers to city dwellers and Indian tribes. We all have a role to use water wisely," Haaland said at the start of a three-day visit to Colorado to address the U.S. response to increasingly scarce water and massive wildfires burning throughout the region.

The American West is gripped by the worst drought in modern history, including most of western Colorado. The northern part of the state is experiencing deadly flash flooding and mudslides after rain fell in areas scarred by massive wildfires last year. Fires are burning across the West, most severely in Oregon and California, while the drought stresses major waterways like the Colorado River and reservoirs that sustain millions of people.

The drought and recent heat waves in the region that are tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires larger and more destructive.

Haaland spoke after meeting with Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette, Gov. Jared Polis and Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, Colorado's largest water agency, for a discussion on the drought and possible federal solutions.

Among other initiatives, she said the Bureau of Reclamation is working to identify and dispense "immediate, technical and financial assistance for impacted irrigators and Indian tribes."

Tanya Trujillo, the department's assistant secretary for water and science, cited a recent decision to release water from several Upper Colorado River basin reservoirs to supply Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two manmade reservoirs that store Colorado River water.

The reservoirs are shrinking faster than expected, spreading panic throughout a region that relies on the river to sustain 40 million people. Federal officials expect to make the first-ever water shortage declaration in the Colorado River basin next month, prompting cuts in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

"We have seen hydrologic projections that are worse than anticipated," Trujillo said.

Haaland's three-day stay in Colorado includes her first trip Friday to the Bureau of Land Management's new headquarters in Grand Junction, established by the Trump administration in 2019. The agency's move from Washington, D.C., produced an outcry from critics who said it gutted the office. Haaland opposed the move as a member of Congress.

The agency overseen by the Interior Department manages nearly 250 million acres of public lands, most of which are in the West. Polis and Colorado's congressional delegation have urged Haaland to keep the office in Grand Junction.

Haaland reiterated her support for Tracy Stone-Manning, President Joe Biden's pick to oversee the land agency, after a Senate panel deadlocked Thursday on Stone-Manning's nomination amid allegations she stonewalled a 1989 investigation into the sabotage of an Idaho timber sale.

"Tracy Stone-Manning has a wealth of experience and knowledge about all issues to do with our public lands. We have full faith that she will put her nose to the grindstone as soon as she's confirmed by the Senate," Haaland said.

The 10-10 tie in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee set up a floor vote on the nomination. It would take every Senate Republican plus at least one Democratic lawmaker to block her confirmation in the evenly divided chamber.

Haaland is visiting as severe and intense dry periods sweeping areas of the West over the last several years have resulted in more intense and dangerous wildfires, parched croplands and a lack of vegetation for livestock and wildlife, according to government scientists.

They also found that the problem is accelerating — rainstorms are becoming increasingly unpredictable and more regions are seeing longer time intervals between storms since the turn of the century.


Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.


See AP's complete coverage of the drought:
Awesome last month