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Upper Colorado River states land $125 million for pilot conservation program amid drought crisis

The major expansion of a previous experiment will be one of Colorado’s biggest contributions to emergency use cuts on the troubled waterway
Nick Gann fishes in Firehole Canyon on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, on the far northeastern shore of Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming. A boating and fishing paradise on the Utah-Wyoming line, Flaming Gorge is beginning to feel the effects of the two-decade megadrought gripping the southwestern U.S. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Upper Colorado River Basin states have a new $125 million pot to rent and dry agricultural land and keep more water in the drought-plagued waterway, in a major expansion of a previous conservation pilot announced by the Biden administration’s Bureau of Reclamation.

Colorado politicians called the new funding key to the state’s ability to make its share of emergency water use cuts ordered by federal officials who are scrambling to keep enough water in the major basin reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, and meet minimum allocations to Lower Basin states. About 40 million people rely on Colorado River water.

The system pilot pays farmers, ranchers and other river users, potentially including municipal or industrial consumers, for temporary and voluntary use of their valuable water rights. Renting that water in dry years keeps the water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead high enough to continue generating hydropower and avoid damaging the dams.

“To combat the drought crisis on the Colorado River, we all need to work together. Empowering voluntary conservation is a critical part of managing our diminished water supplies,” said Colorado U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, who along with fellow Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and other state lawmakers has pushed for federal drought relief funding.

The $125 million is part of more than $700 million in conservation and clean water projects announced Monday, paid for through a combination of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and 2023 appropriations.

The Bureau of Reclamation in 2022 told all seven Colorado River Basin states they must cut water use in 2023 by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, or up to 25% of historic river flows. The severe 23-year drought has sharply reduced the amount of melted snowpack that makes it into the river in the Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, and cut what’s available to the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California.

The Lower Basin states have already suffered major cuts of hundreds of thousands of acre-feet in previous Bureau of Reclamation orders, but now must find millions more acre-feet of savings. The Upper Basin states are under pressure to negotiate their own contributions to the cuts, but Colorado and others argue they’ve never used their full river allocations under a multistate compact and shouldn’t suffer mandatory cuts.

The System Conservation Pilot Program is one way Colorado can contribute savings without imposing mandates. A previous version of the program tested ideas with about $8 million in funding, studying whether agricultural fields could recover in later years if they were dried up temporarily for water rentals. Researchers also want more information on how much water such rentals can actually contribute to the downstream pools in Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

The original Upper Basin pilot ran from 2015 to 2018 and reduced consumption by roughly 50,000 acre-feet of water.

“Well-directed funding today will help farmers, ranchers, cities, and the environment prosper in a more arid future,” said Western Resource Advocates Healthy Rivers Director Bart Miller. “This is a key down payment, but additional resources will be needed in future years, as the challenge is large. State decision-makers also have a key role – to support new policies that will enable more flexible water management in Colorado and make efficient use of these large new federal investments.”

The Grand Valley Water Users Association, which diverts Colorado River water west of Palisade and delivers it to its members for irrigation, operated one of the larger system pilot programs in 2017 and 2018, Chris Outcalt wrote in The Colorado Sun last year. Other Upper Basin projects took place elsewhere in Colorado as well as Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming.

At that time, Mark Harris, general manager of the association, said the first question that needed to be answered was whether farmers would even choose to participate in a program that paid them to temporarily use less water. It turned out they did, if they perceived the offer price to be fair and participation remained a choice instead of a government mandate, Harris said. There were more volunteer sellers than money for the pilot.

“The American West is in crisis. This funding will help communities, water users, and family farmers and ranchers mitigate the effects of the 1,200 year megadrought,” Bennet said in a news release. “There’s more to do to protect our Western way of life, but this is a strong start.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.