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Farmers on the California-Arizona border may face their first-ever cuts to water

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Biden administration has released some details of its $15 billion response to drought in the Colorado River Basin. Yesterday in Arizona, the administration called it the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation's history. But new projects alone won't solve the crisis on the shrinking river. That will require sacrifice. From the California-Arizona border, NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on farmers who are facing water cutbacks for the first time in history.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: For almost 100 years, Amanda Brooks' family has relied on the Colorado River near Yuma, Ariz., to transform this harsh brown desert into lush fields of green, growing abundant lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli and celery. This is where 90% of all the nation's winter produce has grown. Today, it's the end of the celery harvest. The old leaves and stalks crackle as we walk toward the edge of a field, which is also the edge of the state.

AMANDA BROOKS: Yeah. So that levee is California. And right between us and the middle of that levee is the main channel of the Colorado River.

SIEGLER: Brooks has watched with alarm as the river has shrunk in the last two decades. But until recently, it's mostly been business as usual across the seven states that rely on it. Farmers in Yuma are luckier in that they have senior water rights and aren't seeing their river water cut like in other parts of Arizona. But Brooks feels like her day is coming soon.

BROOKS: We would love to be able to farm using all the water that we have now, but we know there's not enough water to go around. And Yuma farmers are willing to help save the river where we can.

SIEGLER: Yuma farmers say they're willing to leave water in the river to pause planting some of their land in exchange for money. And the latest plan the administration and its Bureau of Reclamation announced this week does include hundreds of millions of federal dollars to do that. Yesterday in Phoenix, White House adviser Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, told reporters that the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River can be assured the administration has their backs.

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MITCH LANDRIEU: We have a 23 year drought in this country that is not going to be fixed by a deluge of rain every now and then. We have to reorganize ourselves. We have to come up with new and innovative ways to deal with that.

SIEGLER: Well, the West is coming off a wet winter, but it will do little to address the long-term drought. And this latest batch of federal funding won't be enough to keep the nation's two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, from reaching dead pool, the point at which they're too empty to generate hydropower. Paul Brierley, who runs the Yuma Center for Desert Agriculture, is encouraged that Washington is finally taking this seriously.

PAUL BRIERLEY: You know, another way to look at it - we have a lot of natural disasters in the East - right? - that are hurricanes and floods and tornadoes. This is basically a slow-moving natural disaster.

SIEGLER: The scientists at this center have helped local farmers like Amanda Brooks double their yields in recent years while cutting their water use by about 20%.

BROOKS: This is celery that's already been harvested. And you can see they take almost everything out of there.

SIEGLER: Brooks says it's hard to plan what to plant for next year with so many unknowns still.

BROOKS: You can make larger water cuts someplace else and not hurt the food supply like you would here in Yuma.

SIEGLER: It's not yet clear whether farmers here will get federal payments to not use some river water or whether those will even be enough to keep them in the black.

BROOKS: It's almost unfathomable to think that the river could get to dead pool. I mean, we've got to make some decisions, and the bureau's got to take some action so that we don't get to dead pool.

SIEGLER: The Bureau of Reclamation that controls water here in the West says it will announce a bigger-picture plan next week for preventing dead pool. In Yuma, this cloud of uncertainty is hanging over the annual county fair that's going on this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGLER: A Journey cover band is warming up the crowd on opening night. Fairgoers are noshing on ears of roasted corn, green chili pork and tortilla dogs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's very healthy (laughter).

SIEGLER: Southwest farming towns like this are proud of their agricultural heritage. Their future depends on the river.

DREW HUGHES: A lot of people think Yuma is just a desert area. You know, we are the winter-vegetable capital of the world, I guess.

SIEGLER: Drew Hughes is over in a noisy dairy barn helping kids show their calves.

HUGHES: Some of the farming communities - they are worried about the water coming up for next year. So with this season, it was a pretty good season, but it's going to be rough.

SIEGLER: Rough, he says, as food prices here and everywhere else will only go higher.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Yuma, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF BNNYHUNNA'S "PARADOX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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