Plug Pulled on Program Paying Farmers to Conserve Colorado River Water

A pilot program for irrigators in the Colorado River’s upper basin states will not continue past 2018, according to a recent decision by the Upper Colorado River Commission. But water conservation and storage remain a priority.

Written by Brent Gardner-Smith Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A view of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, Utah, on February 11, 2017. A pilot program to help leave more water in the Colorado River flowing into Lake Powell will end in 2018.RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images

SANTA FE, New Mexico – A four-year pilot program that paid ranchers and farmers in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico about $200 per acre-foot of water saved by fallowing fields in order to boost water levels in Lake Powell will be put on hold after 2018.

On June 20, the five members of the Upper Colorado River Commission unanimously passed a resolution to that effect at a board meeting.

“Although the pilot (program) has helped explore the feasibility of some aspect of demand management programs, it does not provide a means for the upper (basin) states to account, store and release conserved water in a way which will help assure full compliance with the Colorado River Compact in times of drought,” the resolution said.

“Demand management” generally means finding ways to save, or conserve, water by paying willing irrigators to divert less water from streams and rivers by fallowing some of their fields for all, or part, of an irrigation system.

This year, $3.9 million is expected to be paid out to ranchers and farmers in the upper basin, but that will be it for the System Conservation Pilot Program.

The ending of the program does not mean the commission is giving up on getting more water into the upper Colorado River system in order to raise water levels in Lake Powell, as that interest continues to grow as the drought that began in 2000 lingers.

“I view it more of a change in direction rather than a value judgment of system conservation,” said Pat Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming on the commission and also is the Wyoming state water engineer.

In introducing the proposed resolution, Tyrrell said “there are some things (the pilot program) simply cannot do.”

The pilot program “does not allow the upper (basin) states to sufficiently investigate storage or the additional administrative, technical, operational, economic and legal considerations necessary to explore the feasibility of demand management as part of its ongoing emergency drought contingency planning efforts,” the resolution adopted by the commission states.

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District based in Glenwood Springs, supported the commission’s decision.

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The Upper Colorado River Commission, meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico on June 20, 2018. The Commission voted to end the System Conservation Pilot Program, which paid upper basin farmers not to irrigate in order to conserve more water in the Colorado River. (Brent Gardnr-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

“I think it is an appropriate temporary halt in the Upper Colorado River Commission’s support for the System Conservation Pilot Program,” he said after the meeting in Santa Fe. “Mainly because in order for a conserved consumptive use program like this to work, the upper basin needs a pool of water designated in Lake Powell that we can use as a water bank. We don’t currently have that, and until that’s there, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of our of society’s resources on the program.”

Lake Powell is 53 percent full today, and if the water level in the huge reservoir falls much further, it will mean that first, hydropower can no longer be produced by the turbines in Glen Canyon Dam, which forms the reservoir, and second, not enough water can physically be released to meet the upper basin states’ obligations under the Colorado River Compact to send water to the lower basin states, which include California, Arizona and Nevada.

So while there is room in Lake Powell to hold more water sent down from the upper basin states, there is no way to securely store the water from a legal perspective. Today, any water that reaches Powell is fair game to be sent on to Lake Mead and the lower basin states, which defeats the purpose of sending water there to bolster its operational water level.

But there is a legal way to protect such a pool of water in Lake Mead. It’s called an “intentionally created surplus,” and it’s something that water managers in the upper basin states would like to see created in Lake Powell through federal legislation.

The pilot program began paying ranchers and farmers in 2015 to fallow fields and let water run down the river system toward Lake Powell. Originally set up as a two-year program, it was extended for one year in 2017, and then another in 2018.

The program has paid for fallowing in both the upper Colorado River basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico and in the lower basin states.

The overall program was funded by an $11 million pool provided by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Denver Water, in partnership with Reclamation.

The Walton Family Foundation also contributed financially to the upper basin program through a contribution to Denver Water (the Walton Family Foundation also supports Aspen Journalism), and Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy invested a lot of staff time to help make the program work.

In the first three years in the upper basin, 45 fallowing efforts were funded, including 15 in Colorado, at an average cost of $205 an acre-foot of conserved consumptive use – water that would have otherwise been consumed by various crops.

In those three years, about 22,116 acre-feet of water was left in the upper Colorado River system at a total cost of $4.6 million.

Individual contracts in the first three years of the program ranged from $6,300 to $635,000, depending on the number of acres fallowed and for how long.

The 22,000 acre-feet of water sent down to Lake Powell in the first three years of the pilot program represents a tiny drop in a big bucket, as the reservoir holds 24.3 million acre-feet of water when full.

However, officials said the experimental effort was not ever meant to physically change the level of Lake Powell, but to see what lessons could be learned from setting up such a program.

According to a report on the program released by the commission in February, the lessons learned in the upper basin included that the program was valued by some ranchers and farmers, but distrusted by others, that the program was hard to administer due to the many individual contracts required, and that in order for the program to really make a difference, it would need to be dramatically scaled up, and the resulting saved water would need to be securely shepherded to, and held in, Lake Powell or some other reservoir, and not just sent into the river system.

This story was originally published by Aspen Journalism.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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