Drought in western states becomes hot campaign issue

In an off-season campaign dominated by inflation, abortion and crime, there’s another issue that’s growing in western states: drought.

Water has historically played little role in campaign advertising in much of the region, but drought funding now appears in door-to-door campaigns and is on a long list of topics advocacy groups use to rally voters in two states with vulnerable incumbent Democrats and looming water cuts: Nevada and Arizona.

“This issue is an economic concern for our voters and our people,” said Angel Lazcano, a Las Vegas-based Somos Votantes organizer that seeks to mobilize Hispanic voters in swing states.

Federal officials recently announced that Nevada and Arizona will receive far less water in 2023 as a stranglehold on the Colorado River intensifies due to drought, climate change and demand. The federal government has threatened to implement deeper and wider cuts if the seven states dependent on the waterway can’t agree on how to use less.

The two vulnerable officials whose states have been hardest hit by the cuts—Nevada’s Katherine Cortez Masto and Arizona’s Mark Kelly—seized the opportunity to seek funding through federal legislation. They were joined by US Senator Michael Bennet, who is seeking re-election in Colorado, and Arizona Senator Kirsten Sinema. Four Western senators have agreed last-minute $4 billion in funding to help solve the region’s growing water crisis under the Inflation Reduction Act.

With tight races in Nevada and Arizona, the shrinking of the Colorado River basin and a last-minute allocation of $4 billion in drought relief will serve as a test of how influential water access will be in deciding the two most important Senate races in this cycle.

Although drought funding has not yet been allocated, it is generally intended to pay farmers for leaving their fields unsown, as well as to fund water conservation and habitat restoration projects.

Cortes Masto said in a brief interview that she doesn’t see this as a campaign problem, but rather as a problem for the entire West.

Somos Votantes released an advertisement in English and Spanish, thanking Cortes Masto for funding. In Arizona, the Environmental Defense Fund did the same for Sinema, and Kelly touted the funding on social media.

Kathleen Ferris, senior water policy researcher at Arizona State University, said the drought is a politically dark topic. She doubts aid funding will have any impact on the election, and even cuts to the Colorado River haven’t risen to the level of other burning issues.

Campaigns have historically had trouble communicating complex water policies, she says, because there are so many interest groups that are interested in it.

“It’s not always easy to say, ‘OK, I’ll do this,’ which will hurt this group, or ‘I’ll do that’, which will hurt the other group,” said Ferris, senior fellow at ASU’s Morrison Institute. Public Policy. “So basically they say, ‘I’ll convene the parties concerned’, ‘We’re going to have serious discussions,’ and ‘We’ll find a way.’ Well, it’s not very sexy for the electorate.”

Funding is small in the broader context of the historic megadrought. Farmers in Yuma, Arizona, are already asking for more than a quarter of the funding, and projects elsewhere to turn ocean water into drinking water often cost billions.

While projects in Nevada and Arizona may receive priority, 17 states are eligible for funding through 2026.

Questions also remain about whether the one-time scholarship will turn into an annual scholarship. If so, experts say, other funding requests could come under scrutiny from states independent of the river.

While the pool cuts won’t lead to immediate new restrictions, they do signal that unpopular decisions may soon be made on how to cut consumption.

Nowhere have the effects of the drought been more visible than in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River that supplies nearby Las Vegas. The villagers watched human remains and old artifacts reveal themselves as the level dropped.

Lazcano, a Somos Votantes community organizer who backed Cortez Masto, talks about Las Vegas’ robust water recycling infrastructure and $4 billion in drought relief by knocking on doors or hosting events in Las Vegas’ Hispanic neighborhoods.

He presents drought control as an environmental and economic issue affecting jobs and opportunities along with rising gas prices, labor shortages and inflation.

“I feel like people have a superficial understanding of what’s going on,” he said. “It’s like they’re hearing about the cuts and the money coming in, but they’re not too sure how to take it, and that’s where we come in. To tell them how things are going or what this investment means.”

The funding drew mixed reactions from Republican candidates in Nevada.

While the measure of inflation was universally denounced by the party, lawmakers and GOP candidates did not deny that the drought required urgent attention.

Adam Laxalt, who is running against Cortes Masto, has largely refrained from talking about the drought. In an email, he said he supports efforts to address Nevada’s water problems, noting that the crisis “didn’t happen overnight.”

According to him, the Inflation Reduction Act would help increase inflation, and Cortes Masto should have provided funding without having to support a larger bill.

Sam Peters, the Republican candidate in Nevada’s 4th congressional district, which covers much of rural central Nevada all the way to the northern edge of Las Vegas, criticized paying farmers not to use water, saying the Democrats ” throwing money at it with no real solution.” “. He suggested desalination as a long-term solution.

U.S. Rep. Mark Amodey, the only Republican congressman in Nevada, backed the general funding idea and also pointed to desalination, a technology that removes salt from ocean water and turns it into drinking water.

A $1.4 billion desalination project was proposed in California with the backing of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, but was rejected by a California coastal group in May because of its cost and threat to marine life at the base of the food chain.

A few days after the Inflation Reduction Act was passed, Amodeus sent out a blog post that did not mention the drought but outlined provisions that he said would exacerbate the country’s economic problems.

Later, when asked about funding the drought, he said it was “perhaps one of the least egregious things” about the act.

(Stern is a member of 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 hidden issues.)

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed.

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