The Department of Interior announced on Monday that it’s giving $50 million over the next five years to improve key water infrastructure and enhance drought-related data collection across the Upper Colorado River Basin. 

The move is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s Investing in America agenda, a public and private infrastructure investment, which seeks to bring manufacturing back to America, create new jobs and rebuild roads and bridges throughout the U.S.

According to a press release, the Bureau of Reclamation will invest an initial $8.7 million in fiscal year 2023 to support drought mitigation efforts in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. 

“This will help ensure compliance with interstate water compact obligations, maintain the ability to generate hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam, and minimize adverse effects to resources and infrastructure in the Upper Basin,” the statement said.

The Upper Colorado River Basin is facing a historic drought and, despite record snowpack last winter, much of the Intermountain West still remains in drought conditions. 

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, 17.3% of the region was in drought, as of May 11, 2023. 

The forecasts for seasonal streamflow for most large Upper Colorado River Basin reservoirs are “much-above normal,” with “near-to-above normal” flows for Green Mountain, Fontenelle and Flaming Gorge reservoirs. 

Inflow into Lake Powell is forecast as 172% of average, which will help alleviate record-low water levels.

Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said the Biden-Harris administration is committed to finding long-term solutions in the face of climate change and the drought, while working with states, tribes and communities throughout the West. 

“As we look toward the next decade of Colorado River guidelines and strategies, we are simultaneously making smart investments now that will make our path forward stronger and more sustainable,” he said. 

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said resources from President Joe Biden’s Investing in America agenda are allowing the administration to meet a number of program needs across the Colorado River System, including expanding an existing network of instrumentation to improve water accounting, weather predicting and monitoring. 

“Today’s funding will enhance critical data and empower us with the best-available science and technology to more accurately measure the Upper Basin’s consumptive water use,” she said. 

The $8.7 million will help place 12 new eddy covariance stations throughout the Upper Basin to measure evapotranspiration, which is the sum of all processes by which water moves from land to the atmosphere via evaporation and transpiration. Evapotranspiration is a key process for measuring consumptive water use. 

Currently, there are four eddy covariance stations, one in each Upper Basin state. According to the press release, evapotranspiration studies conducted from 2018 through 2020 “demonstrated the need and value of expanding the data gathering ability” of multiple stations.

Eddy covariance stations measure the exchange between the ecosystem and the atmosphere in terms of gas, energy and momentum. The stations can help researchers understand different environmental processes such as carbon dioxide exchange, water vapor and other gasses. 

The funding will also help further Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plans, which are strategies outlined by the Bureau of Reclamation. 

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The plans, signed in 2019, are designed to reduce the risk of reaching critical elevation levels at Lake Powell and ensure compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact. 

One element of the plan, the Drought Response Operations Agreement, temporarily moves water stored in the Colorado River Storage Project Initial Units to Lake Powell when it is projected to reach an elevation of 3,525 feet. 

Lake Powell currently sits at 3,577.5 feet. 

The most recent move from the DROA was moving 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Lake Powell from May 2022 to April 2023.

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