Salton Sea cleanup at risk in fight for Colorado River water

California communities, exposed to hazardous dust from a drying lake bed, are at the center of tensions between Arizona and California over how to conserve water along the congested Colorado River.

US Senator Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat facing re-election, wants the federal government to withhold funds for environmental cleanup on the Salton Sea until California agrees to use less of its share of the river. He also accused the US Bureau of Reclamation of not being clear when and how it will act if the seven western states that rely on the river don’t significantly reduce their use.

“We’re running out of time,” Kelly wrote in a letter to the US Department of the Interior on Tuesday. “The longer the Department waits to push for an agreement… the harder it will be to resolve this crisis, which will only lead to tougher decisions and litigation.”

Federal officials said in June states must drastically reduce consumption because key reservoirs risk sinking to the point where they cannot produce hydroelectric power or supply water users. But states haphazardly missed an August deadline. Congress has in some cases allocated up to $4 billion to pay farmers and cities to use less water, but the impact remains unclear.

Much attention is paid to California, the largest holder of river water and the last to lose in times of scarcity. The state’s users recently said they would reduce usage by up to 9%, depending on federal money and a plan to clean up toxic dust around the Salton Sea.

The lake was formed when the river overflowed in 1905 and is fed primarily by runoff from farms in southeastern California. When drying, the wind whirls up particles that worsen the air quality. When farms use less river water, less excess water flows into the sea.

California officials and the Alianza Coachella Valley community group were surprised by Kelly’s letter. They said it was unfair to use communities exposed to environmental degradation as leverage.

“The Colorado River system is in crisis, we need less blame and more water conservation,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the California Natural Resources Administration.

Kelly’s letter comes amid a tough re-election bid against Republican Blake Masters, a contest that will help determine control of the US Senate.

As farmers and cities across the West face dwindling water supplies, concerns about Arizona’s future water access have become a major concern, particularly in cities like Phoenix and Tucson.

Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado, Tribes and Mexico also own rights to the river’s waters. It helps provide drinking water to an estimated 40 million people, as well as countless farms that grow vegetables and crops for the nation.

Recent federal projections show that the dam on Lake Powell — a critical reservoir on the Arizona-Utah border — may not be able to produce electricity until late next year with minimal rain and snow.

Arizona, Nevada and Mexico have already suffered mandatory supply cuts. California would eventually intervene in those cuts if Lake Powell and Lake Mead continue to sink as projected.

The savings California offered in October — 400,000 acre-feet of water annually — account for about one-fifth of the minimum amount federal officials say must be cut through the basin.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said Wednesday he doesn’t consider California’s offer a firm commitment. Arizona has saved some water beyond mandated cuts since June but has not yet committed how much more it would offer, he said via email.

Any federal money given to California to treat the Salton Sea should be tied to a state promise to keep water in Lake Mead, Buschatzke said.

Withholding funds for cleanup projects around the lake “would impact real communities already suffering from higher rates of asthma and other health problems,” Alianza Coachella Valley executive director Silvia Paz said in a statement.

Kelly said Wednesday it was wrong for California to ask for money for the Salton Sea to solve a crisis on the Colorado River.

“I’m not letting California get away with that,” Kelly said after a campaign stop in Phoenix. “You can’t hold the Colorado River hostage while funding something else. No matter what it is. I mean, we’re talking water here.”

Kelly also wants details on when California will be banned from taking water it stores in the lake.

The Home Office declined to comment on Kelly’s letter, spokesman Tyler Cherry said.

Masters, Kelly’s Republican rival, calls for an even more aggressive confrontation with California, saying in a recent debate, “We can solve this problem with technology and sharp elbows.”

“Why is California putting its straw in the Colorado River in the first place?” Masters said, suggesting that the state should instead remove salt from seawater to increase its supply.

Cooper and Ronayne report for the Associated Press. Salton Sea cleanup at risk in fight for Colorado River water

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