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Making every drop of water count

Lawmakers work to help WaterSMART program

WASHINGTON – It is well-known that water availability across the Western United States is a big problem, affecting farmers, ranchers, cities and everyone in between.

There have been fights in the Colorado Legislature over lawn watering and ski area water rights. And the federal government continues to place great importance on providing adequate water supplies for the future.

One federal program implemented through the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees water management, has been providing water-sustainability grants to states, tribes, local governments and nongovernmental organizations since 2010. The WaterSMART program, which stands for Sustain and Manage America’s Resources for Tomorrow, provides grants as well as resources and expertise in 17 Western states.

However, the program is authorized to spend only $200 million on the grants. Without raising the funding cap, the program will end in the near future.

A bill introduced Feb. 12 to the Senate and co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., would raise the authorization ceiling for the water-conservation grants through 2023. Funds still would need to be requested through the normal budgetary process.

“Population growth and widespread drought are forcing us to do more with less water. Now more than ever, it’s essential that we make every drop count,” Udall said in a statement last week. “These programs are helping our communities develop the technology we need to conserve water, save energy and cut costs.”

The program has saved 734,000 acre-feet of water per year since 2010. One acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons of water and will supply slightly more than two single-family households for a year.

Dean Marrone, WaterSMART program coordinator, says the program consistently has too little funding for the number of applications it receives. It provides 50-50 cost-share grants, meaning half the money for the project must be provided by the organization requesting funds, mainly to upgrade water infrastructure.

“We hear from a lot of recipients that the federal funding can be really important in building support locally for the projects,” Marrone said.

Southwest Colorado has seen a fair amount of WaterSMART projects.

In 2013, the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association received a $38,758 grant through the program for head-gate automation, remote monitoring and other upgrades.

Steve Fletcher, manager of the association, applied for the grant to modernize its water system and make it more efficient using updated technology. Fletcher said he already has applied for another grant this year that would provide $850,000 for hydroelectricity projects.

The Dolores Water Conservancy District received $118,351 through the program to line its leaking clay canals and restore total efficiency to the water delivery system in 2010. It also recently received a $25,000 cost-share grant to help update its strategic plan and guide its work for the next five to 10 years.

“Most of our funding is from the farmers and municipalities that rely on the water, and there is a limit to what they can pay,” district manager Mike Preston said. “Any opportunity to leverage funding to help with these improvements and planning is really helpful.”

Both Fletcher and Preston hope the program will continue and wish to make more use of it in the future.

The bill currently is in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, on which Udall serves. A hearing was held Thursday before the Water and Power Subcommittee, where Robert Quint, senior adviser for the Bureau of Reclamation, spoke about the importance of the project.

“Sustainable water supplies are the underpinning of a stable economic base, employment continuity and smart growth,” he said. “We can provide incentives to encourage water conservation and reuse, leadership in new technology to increase usable supplies and assistance for ecosystem restoration efforts that increase the certainty of water supplies for the future. All of these efforts depend on partnerships with local utilities, states, tribes and others.”

Under the bill, the WaterSMART program also would be reauthorized to provide grants to state water resource agencies to continue to develop a National Water Census through the U.S. Geological Survey. This authority expired in 2013.

The program also pays for studies of major rivers that provide information about future water availability and recommendations for the future. A Colorado River Basin study was completed at the end of 2012.

The bill also makes sure the WaterSMART program will prioritize projects that prevent and combat drought.

Another drought-related project was reauthorized last week, after passing the Senate and the House. The National Integrated Drought Information System in Boulder provides resources to better inform and promote timely decision-making to decrease the costs of drought on farmers and municipalities. The reauthorization bill, co-sponsored by Udall, was passed by the Senate on Wednesday and is expected to be signed by President Barack Obama.

“The recent severe drought has staggered Colorado’s farmers and ranchers. It’s the reason I have fought in Congress to improve our ability to forecast and monitor droughts and strengthen programs that help farmers coping with drought,” Udall said.

Katie Fiegenbaum is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at kfiegenbaum@durangoherald.com.

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