Drought in western US heats up as Senate campaign issue

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RENO, Nev. — In a midterm campaign season dominated by inflation, abortion, and crime, there’s another issue that’s growing more pressing in western states: drought.

Historically, the subject of water has played little or no role in campaign advertisements in much of the region, but drought relief funding is now being addressed in door-to-door campaigns. -carries and is on the long list of talking points that advocacy groups use to rally around. voters in two states with vulnerable Democratic incumbents and impending water cuts: Nevada and Arizona.

“This issue appeals to the economic anxiety of our voters and our people,” said Angel Lazcano, a Las Vegas-based organizer for Somos Votantes, which seeks to mobilize Latino voters in swing states.

Federal officials recently announced that Nevada and Arizona will receive significantly less water in 2023 as the stranglehold on the Colorado River worsens due to drought, climate change and demand. The federal government has threatened to impose deeper and wider cuts if the seven states that depend on the waterway cannot agree on how to use less of it.

The two vulnerable incumbents whose states are hardest hit by the cuts — Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Mark Kelly of Arizona — took 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 Kyrsten Sinema. The four western senators negotiated last-minute $4 billion in funding to help address the region’s growing water crisis under the Cut Inflation Act.

In close races in Nevada and Arizona, cuts to the Colorado River Basin and last-minute funding of $4 billion to tackle drought will serve as a test to determine the influence of access to water in deciding two of the most important Senate races this cycle.

Although still unallocated, drought relief funds will typically pay farmers to leave fields unplanted and pay for water conservation and habitat restoration projects.

Cortez Masto said in a brief interview that she doesn’t see it as a campaign issue, but rather as a problem for all of the West.

Somos Votantes ran advertisements in English and Spanish, thanking Cortez Masto for the 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 drought is a politically murky topic. She doubts the relief funding will have any bearing on the election, and even the Colorado River cuts haven’t risen to the level of other burning issues.

Campaigns have always struggled to communicate about complex water policies because there are so many interest groups with an interest, she said.

“It’s not necessarily easy to say, ‘Well, I’m going to do this,’ which would hurt this group, or ‘I’ll do that,’ which would hurt another group,” said lead researcher Ferris. at the Morrison Institute for ASU. Public policy. “So most of the time what they say is ‘I’ll convene the stakeholders’ and ‘we’ll have solid discussions’ and ‘we’ll find a way.’ Well, that’s not very sexy. for the electorate.”

Funding is low in the broader context of a historic mega-drought. Farmers in Yuma, Arizona, are already applying for more than a quarter of the funding, and projects elsewhere to convert seawater into drinking water often cost billions.

Although Nevada and Arizona projects may be prioritized, 17 states are eligible for funding, which will be distributed through 2026.

Questions also remain over whether the one-time allowance will turn into an annual allowance. If this is the case, according to experts, other requests for funding could be considered by states that do not depend on the river.

Although the cuts to the basins do not lead to immediate new restrictions, they do signal that unpopular decisions on how to reduce consumption could come soon.

Nowhere have the effects of the drought been more visible than in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the Colorado River, which supplies water to nearby Las Vegas. Residents have seen human remains and ancient artifacts come to light as levels drop.

Lazcano, the Somos Votantes community organizer who endorsed Cortez Masto, talks about Las Vegas’ robust water recycling infrastructure and $4 billion in drought relief funding while going door-to-door -door or by organizing events in the Latin neighborhoods of Las Vegas.

It frames drought relief as an environmental and economic issue – affecting jobs and opportunity alongside rising gas prices, labor shortages and inflation.

“I feel like people have this superficial understanding of these things that are happening,” he said. “For example, they hear about the cuts and the money coming in, but they’re not sure how to cash in on that, and that’s where we come in. To tell them how it is, or what those investments mean .”

The funding drew mixed reactions from Republican candidates in Nevada.

While the inflation measure has been universally reviled by the party, GOP lawmakers and candidates have not denied that the drought needs urgent attention.

Adam Laxalt, who is running against Cortez Masto, mostly refrained from talking about the drought. In an email, he said he supported efforts to address water issues in Nevada, noting that the crisis “did not happen overnight.”

The Inflation Reduction Act will help drive up inflation, and Cortez Masto should have secured financing without incurring a bigger bill, he said.

Sam Peters, a Republican candidate for Nevada’s 4th congressional district – which covers much of rural central Nevada up to the northern edge of the Las Vegas area – criticized paying farmers to don’t use water, saying Democrats are “throwing money at it with no real solution.” He suggested desalination as a longer-term solution.

US Representative Mark Amodei, Nevada’s only Republican congressman, backed the general idea of ​​the funding and also pointed to desalination, the technology that removes salt from seawater and turns it into drinking water.

A $1.4 billion desalination project was proposed in California with the support of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, but was rejected by a California coastal panel in May due to its cost and the threat to marine organisms at sea. the base of the food chain.

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

Asked about drought funding later, he said it was “perhaps one of the less egregious things” about the law.

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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 reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Stern on Twitter: @gabestern326

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