Colorado River's Upper Basin will re-up a plan that pays farmers and ranchers to use less water
Some states in the arid West are looking to invest more money in water conservation. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have agreed to re-up a water conservation program designed to reduce strain on the Colorado River. Those states, which represent the river’s Upper Basin, will use money from the Inflation Reduction Act to pay farmers and ranchers to use less water.
The four states are re-implementing the program amid talks with California, Arizona, Nevada and the federal government to come up with more permanent water reductions by 2026. T he aim is to find ways to reduce water use by the agriculture industry — w hose water de mands ac count for about 80% of all Colorado River water use — without harming the people and communities that depend on productive farms and ranches.
The “System Conservation Pilot Program,” or SCPP, first ran from 2015 to 2018. Then, drawing on a pool of $125 million in federal spending, it was rebooted forarunin2023 , during a time when federal officials were pressuring states that rely on the Colorado River to come up with a new plan for cutbacks.
This iteration of the prog ram, officials say, will see some changes in how it’s applied.
“We learned a lot about SCPP last year, so this year’s revamp integrates a lot of input from Colorado water users,” Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top water negotiator, wrote in a press release. “SCPP should — and can — work in a way that makes sense for Colorado. The pilot program can provide flexibility for Coloradans who want or need to explore innovative conservation projects.”
This revamped edition will include an earlier application window for payments, a transparent pricing mechanism , and increased education and outreach for water users. Its core will remain largely the same – fielding proposals from growers with plans to save water, and paying them in exchange.
Alex Funk, who used to work on agricultural water issues for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, s aid the plan is a “bit of a different beast” than the last two times it was implemented, but still works towards an overarching goal of water conservation in a region that urgently needs to make long-term cutbacks to water use.
“I'm encouraged to see that recognition , because I think that's going to have a lot of value for the Upper Basin to start thinking about the different tools they can use to build resilience to those impacts on their water users,” he said.
Funk is now the director of water resources and senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds a portion of KUNC's Colorado River coverage.
He said this project serves as a way to test out practices that could be part of a more permanent conservation program. That may be why it’s still referred to as a “pilot” even after years in existence. The seven states that use water from the Colorado River are workshopping ways to use less ahead of a 2026 deadline. That’s when the current guidelines for sharing the river expire and states are expected to come up with a new set of rules.
Water policy experts often point to “buy and dry ,” or fallowing , programs as an important step in freeing up water for the parched region. Because of agriculture’s outsized role in Colorado River water use, paying growers to temporarily fallow their fields could allow water managers to leave more in reservoirs, especially the nation’s two largest : Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But farm groups warn that if fallowing is done too rapidly or haphazardly, rural economies throughout the region will suffer.
The previous iteration of the SCPP polarized growers. Some Colorado farmers told KSJD they felt an obligation to conserve water, while others worried cutting back could deal long-term harm to t he ir communities.
Funk predicts 2024’s conservation plan will try to focus on “water-thrifty crops ” and new ways to accurately measure and verify the amount of water saved through changes funded b y the SCPP.
Chuck Cullom, director of the Upper Colorado River Commission th at implement s the SCPP, said the region still needs water conservation efforts even though Colorado River water supplies saw a temporary boost from a re cent snowy winter in the mountains.
“We don’t want to squander the benefits of one good water year by forgoing the opportunity to learn and develop tools that adapt to a hotter, drier future, which is what SCPP can help address,” he said.
In 2023, the SCPP spent $16.1 million on water conservation across 64 different contracts. That resulted in water savings of about 37,800 acre-feet, according to estimates from the Upper Colorado River Commission.
The four states that agreed to the conservation program are allotted a total of 7.5 million acre-feet each year. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides a yea r's worth of water for one to two households .
The first iteration of the SCPP ran from 2015 t o 2018. Designed to serve as a proof of concept, the UCRC distributed more than $8.5 million as a part of that program and conserved an estimated 47,207 acre-feet of water.
Funk, with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, s aid this kind of water conservation needs to keep going – and growing – in years to come.
“The challenge is always going to be around capacity, scale and not letting the foot off the gas,” he said. “I think the worst thing we could do is spend the money this year and then we don't do it ever again . A nd then it stalls out.”
Climate scientists broadly agree that dry conditions are expected to continue throughout the Southwest . M ajor policy efforts are focused on reducing water demand to meet those changes in supply. Upper Basin states and their water users often say their water supply is dictated by the ebb and flow of winter snow totals, while California, Arizona and Nevada rely on predictable, legally-obligated water deliveries from the Upper Basin. One 2022 study cast doubt on the claim that Upper Basin states are forced to take water shortages in lean years, h oweve r, pointing to data that suggests higher water use in the region during dry times.
Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s water negotiator, reiterated the Upper Basin's oft-repeated message in remarks about the 2024 conservation program.
“It is imperative that we shift from crisis-to-crisis management to the development of longer-term, sustainable solutions,” Mitchell wrote in a statement to KUNC. “Our partners in the Lower Basin States must learn to live within the means of the River with permanent reductions to their overuse, and the operations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead must be responsive to hydrologic realities by aligning releases with what Mother Nature provides.”
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced and distributed by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.
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