A $125 million conservation program that pays farmers and ranchers to use less water is lurching forward this month in the face of fractured support and a hefty time crunch.
The federally funded conservation pilot program pays volunteers to cut back on their water use on a temporary basis as part of an Upper Basin plan to reduce water use in the parched Colorado River Basin.
On Wednesday, Colorado’s top water board approved protections for water users in the program so conservation wouldn’t impact their water rights, even as big players among the state’s water districts pushed to slow down its launch, and agricultural producers seemed to be conflicted about joining the program in the first place.
“This has gotten to that point where you’ve got people really adamant that this is a terrible thing, and other people who think we should throw $125 million at it. So who’s right?” said David Harold, a farmer in western Colorado who applied to join the program.
The conservation program is a departure from 100 years of water law, which requires water rights holders to actually use their water. It’s also a major expansion of its first iteration, a pilot program that ran from 2015 to 2018 in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The first System Conservation Pilot Program spent more than $8.5 million, included about 36,000 acres across the Upper Basin and reduced consumptive use by roughly 50,000 acre-feet. At the time, the program was popular enough that the Grand Valley Water Users Association near Grand Junction had to move to a lottery system because too many people wanted to be involved.
In July 2022, the Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate agency that manages water in the Upper Basin, listed renewing the program as its first strategy to cut water use in its 5 Point Plan.
The commission announced the plan in response to the Bureau of Reclamation’s call in June 2022 for basin states to reduce water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet in 2023 to help stabilize the overtaxed river system and keep enough water in the major basin reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Essentially, the goal is to keep water in the river system. Any water users with the ability to conserve can participate, including municipal and industrial consumers. And it’s not just a land fallowing program; farmers can also try other methods, like switching to crops that use less water.
“If we’re conserving water and leaving it in our river, that water could potentially help Lake Powell, but it also could help some stretches of river that might be really dry,” said Amy Ostdiek, section chief of interstate, federal and water information for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
But the pilot is limited in its ability to help meet the Bureau of Reclamation’s request to cut water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet.
“Nothing the Upper Basin does can solve that problem,” Ostdiek said. “The entire Upper Basin used 3.5 million acre-feet in 2021. We can’t create that amount of water (conservation) because we don’t use that amount of water.”
Most of the Colorado applicants are agricultural producers who are stuck in limbo at the start of the irrigation season as they wait to see if their applications are approved.
“It’s getting late in the season. They (water users) want to start running water April 1, generally, so they need to know if their applications have been approved and if they have signed contracts,” said Steve Wolff, general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District. “We’re running out of time, and I fully understand the concerns that some of those water users have right now.”
This year, the Upper Colorado River Commission received more than 80 applications by the March 1 deadline, Ostdiek said. Of the 36 that came from Colorado, most included full-season fallowing, while some proposed partial-season irrigation or crop replacement projects.
“I’ll just say, it’s been a real time crunch,” Ostdiek said Thursday. “We’re still kind of reviewing them.”
Even as staff raced to review applications, some parts of the program were still being approved last week. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the agency tasked with protecting and managing the state’s water resources, voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the pilot as a conservation program under state statute.
The official designation offers program participants extra protection for their water rights. Since the Colorado River Compact was established in 1922, water rights holders have had to put their water to beneficial use. If they don’t use it, they can lose their right to it. Under a state-approved conservation program, participants get protection for their water rights against an abandonment proceeding.
“I think there is definitely room this year to improve the program,” said board member Greg Felt, who represents the Arkansas River Basin. “I don’t think that we’re going to improve it by not providing those protections to the people who applied.”
Next the individual applications will be reviewed in April by the Upper Colorado River Commission, which will make the final approvals.
The review process is one of the main concerns for the Colorado River District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District, which together span the entire Western Slope. Even with the time constraint, districts hoped to hit the brakes during the board meeting’s public comment period Wednesday.
“There is a complete lack of process within our state reviewing this program or the potential impacts to other water users,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, calling the whole process “pretty shocking,” during a district board meeting Thursday.
Review at the local level would offer protection from potential impacts to other water users and the surrounding community, he said.
As of Friday, the Colorado Water Conservation Board had not publicly reviewed individual applications, and neither had the districts, despite their requests to do so. Instead, the Upper Colorado River Commission is the sole entity to review and approve the applications.
“I will tell you right now, I am still a little unclear where we fit into the process and when we might see applications within our districts,” Wolff said Friday. “This is a big program using big public dollars. It should be a very open and transparent process. Everybody should be able to see all these applications, minus some redacted personal information from the landowners. I fully support that. But we think it should be much more open than it has been.”
Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s top water negotiator, agreed that the rollout has been a “struggle” and said she requested a public comment period in the next Upper Basin commission meeting so water users and districts can provide input.
“Every day is a learning experience,” she said during the meeting. “If we were to do this again, which I don’t know the answer to that at this point for sure … I would ask that the application be transparent from the beginning.”
The System Conservation Pilot Program also faces long-standing questions about its effectiveness and concerns about a new water market in the West in which people can make money by not using their water rights, unlike in past decades.
Colorado policymakers have lauded the program as a way to address the Bureau of Reclamation’s calls to cut water use and help replenish Lake Powell, but there’s no real way of knowing how much would actually reach the reservoir.
Water managers do not measure or track the amount of water conserved through the program or where it ends up. Instead, program participants estimate how much water they aim to conserve and the state makes assumptions based on that.
“In our mind, if an entity is not going to use their water, then it should go to the next junior water user on the system rather than just roll downstream and out of state, which I think is the intention,” Wolff said.
Accounting for the water as it makes its way to the reservoir would require a lot of coordination among the Upper Division states, Ostdiek said.
“Frankly we don’t have the time right now to set up the robust measuring, monitoring, shepherding and legal requirements that that would require,” she said. “The fact that we (aren’t shepherding) doesn’t mean the water won’t necessarily make it to Powell.”
Upper Basin states will do what they can to help restore reservoirs, but this isn’t a problem that can be solved by just system conservation or other programs, like demand management, she said.
“This represents what we are able to do when we are able to do it,” Ostdiek said.
Of six people to offer public comment during Wednesday’s board discussion, five brought a concern or critique to the board’s attention and one voiced support. The supporter, James Eklund, is the former director of the water conservation board and is advising Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm.
“The SCPP, while imperfect and inferior, in my humble opinion, to banking water in a Colorado Lake Powell demand management account, is nonetheless an important step in the right direction,” Eklund said. “The SCPP also provides agricultural producers with more options while allowing us to contribute to saving the system on which we rely.”
Greg Peterson, executive director of Colorado Ag Water Alliance, said faith in the program seemed to be running low.
“This winter I’ve been traveling a lot, and of course system conservation comes up. I’m just trying to pass on what I’m hearing from a lot of producers,” he said. “It seems more unpopular than it was five years ago, and there’s just a lot of concern about the program.”
Of the six speakers, Harold, who runs the Tuxedo Corn company in Olathe, was the only person to say that he participated in the first system conservation pilot program.
“The formal organizations like CWCB and the river district and southwest district, and just almost everybody in general, is doing a terrible job of marketing and bringing the water users, the farmers essentially, to the table,” he said in an interview after the board meeting.
He didn’t feel represented by the Colorado River District when it asked to slow the process or voiced opposition to the program. Ultimately, he said the dialogue around the program has caused hesitancy – people even say they’d feel “dirty” by participating, he said.
“I want to be aware and involved, and I hope to be a valuable member of society,” he said. “I could be called a complete jackass for participating and a traitor … and I could be called a great collaborator and a thoughtful, discerning person by someone else.”
Harold said his application was still under review last week, but even if he is accepted into the program, he’s not sure he’ll participate.
“I want to participate. I want to dialogue. I want not just me to do that, I want my neighbors to do it,” he said. “We have a problem – society does – whether it’s a fly fisherman, a houseboater or a farmer. We got to eat; we want to play. We’ve got to figure this out one way or another. We’ve got to work together. Pointing the finger at each other, calling the other guy, what he does, ‘dumb’ isn’t productive.”