The next U.S. Senator from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, enters office in an unprecedented era in western water management.

The Colorado River and groundwater resources are under strain from long-term drought and climate warming. The Colorado River’s two large reservoirs—Lakes Mead and Powell—are at their lowest point in 40 years. Lake Mead has a 57 percent likelihood that it will decline to elevations that trigger a Tier 1 shortage. The chance of more severe Tier 2 shortages has jumped to a 26 percent likelihood in the year 2021. In a shortage, Arizona will lose water that farms and cities in Central Arizona have come to rely on.

Given the challenges ahead, it is important that Senator-elect Sinema be prepared to tackle these important natural resource issues head-on:

  1. Complex negotiations among the seven Colorado River Basin states and water users yielded draft drought contingency plan agreements to leave more water in the reservoirs and forestall catastrophic shortages. This is a big step for progress in the Basin, but there is work still ahead in each state to make sure the agreements come together. And while in-state conversations are ongoing, ultimately, the federal government will have to sign off on these Colorado River drought agreements and help fund voluntary water conservation programs across the West. We’ll need a senator who can represent our water needs balancing economic growth, agriculture, and healthy rivers and lakes that birds and other wildlife need.
  2. National forests in Arizona are under threat—long-term drought and past fire suppression efforts have led to crowded and dense forests that ignite into massive wildfires. It is essential that we continue progressing on forest restoration and promoting forest health—our water resources, communities, wildlife, and birds cannot afford to see the forests go up in flames.
  3. Invasive plants such as tamarisk (saltcedar) present a plethora of problems for local communities near waterways. Non-native plants alter flood plains, increase fire risk, and out-compete native plants. Together, the federal government, local municipalities, and conservation partners can reduce flood and fire risk and improve river health with efforts and funding to remove tamarisk and restore native vegetation.
  4. Facilitating Native American water rights settlements, delivering on the promises made in them, and ensuring tribal voices are at the table are all critical roles of the federal government.
  5. Birds, wildlife, and people all rely on the millions of acres of public lands in the West—it’s what makes it such a special place. The preservation, maintenance, and access to public lands is of vital importance for Audubon and many of our partners.
  6. The federal government plays an important role in maintaining and improving water infrastructure throughout the United States. Revolving loan funds, grants, and other federally backed programs boost the ability for agricultural irrigation districts and water utilities to deliver clean, safe, and reliable water and to be as efficient as possible with these precious water resources. 
  7. The Farm Bill is critical for birds and agriculture and it is the largest source of federal funding for private lands conservation. Farm Bill conservation programs have been critical to improving the efficiency of irrigation systems in the Colorado River basin.
  8. Revitalizing rivers through innovative and win-win solutions presents economic development as well as habitat restoration opportunities. Previous efforts—such as the City of Phoenix’s Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area—required partnerships among local, state, and federal agencies to complete these successful projects. Continued federal engagement will be critical as more communities turn toward their rivers, including the Santa Cruz in Tucson, as well as the Salt and the Gila Rivers as they meander through six municipalities and two tribal communities in the Phoenix Metro Area.  

The projected shortfall in water supply in the coming decades underscores the need to invest in timely and collaborative solutions. We will need proactive engagement from the Senator-elect on these vital issues so that we have water reliability for the people and the birds that reside and migrate all around the West. We congratulate and wish the Senator-elect much success on the many challenges facing Arizona and the Nation in the months and years to come. We look forward to working with her.

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