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Congress may continue to pay farmers to use less water as Colorado River pleas intensify

Headwaters of the Colorado River inside Rocky Mountain National Park on July 15, 2022, near Grand Lake. (Hugh Carey/ The Colorado Sun)
The bill is tied to an Upper Basin water plan in response to talk about significant Colorado River cuts.

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper is pushing legislation that aims to make federal funding available to pay farmers and ranchers to voluntarily use less water by leaving their fields temporarily fallow.

The Hickenlooper bill, which has bipartisan support, passed the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Thursday. It still has to be approved by the full Senate and in the House.

The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, is part of a plan introduced earlier this week by the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico in response to the Bureau of Reclamation’s call last month to slash 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water use from the Colorado River by the end of 2023.

The new legislation would allow water managers to restart next year a water-savings program that last operated four years ago.

“This is the first step in a collaborative plan to restore the Colorado River. We need more programs where water users are empowered to conserve water where and when it makes sense for them,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said in a written statement. “If we just sit around suing each other over a hundred-year-old agreement, we’ll watch the river run dry.”

The Upper Colorado River Commission, or UCRC, an interstate agency that manages water in the Upper Basin, is working on the plan. UCRC executive director Chuck Cullom said the idea behind the legislation is to have a program, officially known as the System Conservation Pilot Program, in place at the start of the spring 2023 irrigation season.

“We hope Congress is receptive,” Cullom said. “Our goal is to first have the reauthorization legislation completed as quickly as possible.”

The Colorado River passes through the scar of East Troublesome fire, which burned in 2020, on July 15, near Grand Lake. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

The Bureau of Reclamation says the cutbacks announced by Commissioner Camille Touton are necessary to prevent the water level at Lake Powell from dropping below a point at which Glen Canyon Dam can no longer generate hydropower and to prevent damage to infrastructure. The cutbacks are also meant to aid Lake Mead, whose water level is quickly dropping.

Touton gave the seven states that use the Colorado River 60 days to present ideas about how to meet the target for water cuts.

The amount of Colorado River water Touton called for in cuts is massive. In 2021, the entire Upper Basin used about 3.5 million acre-feet, according to Bureau of Reclamation numbers compiled by the UCRC. Those numbers include water lost to evaporation. By comparison, according to the same data that includes evaporation losses, the Lower Basin states – California, Arizona and Nevada – and Mexico used about 10 million acre-feet.

Even with swift congressional support, water managers must act quickly if they hope to get agriculture producers to participate next year in any kind of pilot program where they are offered compensation to voluntarily and temporarily not use water, said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District.

“Farmers and ranchers both plan agricultural cycles far in advance,” Mueller said. “One of the lessons that our bureaucrats have learned is there’s some significant advanced planning that has to be dealt with in order to participate. If it’s going to happen next year, we’re going to have to move fast.”

The original iteration of the System Conservation Pilot Program, or SCPP, ran from 2015 to 2018. In the first three years, the program funded 45 projects; those projects cost about $4.6 million and reduced consumptive use by 22,116 acre-feet, according to a UCRC report. In 2018, according to a separate UCRC report, the program provided about $4 million to conserve 25,097 acre-feet. Major water utilities funded the original basin-wide program. The new bill in Congress does not yet have federal funding attached to it.

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 SCPP programs in 2017 and 2018. 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.

Boaters navigate a channel of the Blue Mesa reservoir Saturday Sept. 4, 2021. (William Woody/ Special to The Colorado Sun)

The answer was “yes.” Eventually, Harris said, the association had to move to a lottery system because too many people wanted to be involved. During the program’s two years of operation in the Grand Valley, Harris said the association enrolled about 2,300 acres and saved about 6,000 acre-feet of water.

“I think, yes, it was successful,” Harris said. “Farmers will do it under the right circumstances, and it can be done palatably for a community and water organization like ours.”

Harris said the association also learned a lot about how to operate this kind of project. “It’s not like falling off a rock,” he said. “It costs a lot to administer a program like that and it’s just plain complicated. We did prove it can be done with an eye toward sometime our need to do it may not come in the form of a request, it may very well be a demand.”

Fourth-generation Grand Valley farmer Joe Bernal, who participated in the pilot program, said that it was palatable and that the compensation was adequate at the time. “It went OK,” he said.

Bernal said he worries about the possibility of some day being told to contribute water without any compensation. And, he said, if that were ever to happen, he doesn’t want to be accused of having done nothing. “I’m afraid of a unilateral action by the Department of Interior,” Bernal said. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Joining a program next year could be difficult for farmers, Bernal said. “Right now is our planning time,” he said. “Right now we’re talking about where to plant our new alfalfa.”

Paul Kehmeier, who farms hay and small grains north of Delta, also participated in a pilot program several years ago. Kehmeier said it was mostly a positive experience and that he felt the concept was a useful one to test.

“I like to have the option of leasing my water as a management option in my business toolbox,” Kehmeier said. “I like having a choice other than the nuclear option of selling my property and the water being moved off.”

Harris said keeping water tied to the land is, in his mind, a requirement of any kind of program like SCPP. “My overwhelming objective is to assure that the water is not separated permanently from the land.”

The first iteration of the basin-wide SCPP was funded by several large municipal water providers, including Denver Water, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Central Arizona Project as well as the Bureau of Reclamation. The Walton Family Foundation contributed money to the Upper Basin SCPP program in 2017 “through Denver Water,” according to an executive summary posted on the UCRC website.

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead said he supports the reauthorization. “The original proof-of-concept program demonstrated that there is an interest by water users to be compensated to voluntarily and temporarily suspend their use of water in order to enhance river flows,” Lochhead said in a statement. “The prospect of significant federal funding would allow the program to operate at a greater scale.”

Trout Unlimited supported the program the first time around and would be eager to do so again, Drew Peternell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado water program, said. “We felt like it was good for our partners in the ag community and had the side benefit to us of increasing streamflow for the benefit of fish and recreational values.”

Peternell said in the future if a conservation program like this ever became permanent he hoped recreational and environmental benefits could be not just an ancillary benefit but a primary purpose. “We should account for those values,” he said.

One more technical, and critical, question not addressed in the previous version of the SCPP was how any water not used by an irrigator would be tracked and accounted for down the river in Colorado, across the state line and into Lake Powell – a process known as shepherding. Harris said that’s a question that would eventually have to be addressed.

“The creation of that [SCPP] water didn’t have Colorado’s or the UCRC’s name on it; it was ‘system’ water,” Harris said. “If you’re seriously thinking about doing things on a broad scale … you have to make sure the water ends up in its intended location.”

In the case of the Grand Valley, the geography is notable. The region is situated close to the Utah border and there are not a large number of water users between there and Lake Powell. But what about in other parts of the state?

“One question I would have is what would it look like if our agriculture producers in northeastern or southeastern Colorado participated?” the river district’s Mueller said. “How would that work? And what would the delivery mechanism be for that water?”

The complex nature of sorting this stuff out, Mueller said, is why some have bristled at Touton putting a 60-day clock on coming up with ideas. Still, he said, “this is a really good step and I think the state and our water users are certainly willing to participate in good faith to try to figure this out.”

Read more at The Colorado Sun

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