Cassie Cerise lives on her family’s ranch on Missouri Heights, a mesa above Carbondale named for the home state of some of the area’s earliest settlers.
Like her parents and grandparents, she runs cattle and irrigates hay and alfalfa fields — some by sprinklers, others by flood — with water from Cattle Creek. But this season, Cerise and her husband, Tim Fenton, decided to let about 73 acres go dry and get paid for the water they aren’t using as part of the federally funded System Conservation Program, which is aimed at addressing the crisis on the Colorado River. According to Cerise’s contract with the Upper Colorado River Commission, which oversees the program, not watering her fields this season will save about 83 acre-feet of water.
“We struggled with whether or not to do this, but in hindsight, it was ‘We’ll give you money to not work as hard and you get to go to your kid’s baseball games this summer,’” she said. “So we said, ‘Sign us up.’”
For Cerise, who sits on the board of the Mount Sopris Conservation District, the motivation to participate in system conservation was mostly financial. After being embroiled in a lawsuit with a neighbor, her family needed the money. But Cerise said the payments will also go toward a new sprinkler system on the fields currently being fallowed, which will help ensure the future viability of the ranch.
“If we are going to keep ranching this place and our kids are going to have an opportunity to ranch, we needed to get some money back into our coffers,” she said. “It just seemed like a win for us if we could use it to better the ranch in the long term, and the sprinklers might be easier as we age to keep the ranch in production.”
The System Conservation Program is paying water users in the four upper basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — to cut back. Although water users from all sectors can participate, all of the projects in Colorado involved agricultural water users on the Western Slope. Participation, which is voluntary, is funded with $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act.
System conservation was first tried in the upper basin from 2015 to 2018 and saved an estimated 47,000 acre-feet of water, at a cost of about $8.6 million. Last year, the UCRC announced it would restart a system conservation program as part of its 5-Point Plan, aimed at protecting critical elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which have fallen to record-low levels in recent years because of overuse, drought and climate change.
On Tuesday, UCRC staff presented to commissioners lessons learned from the first year of the rebooted program and asked for guidance about whether it should be implemented again in 2024. After talking with participants, UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom said five themes emerged, the first of which was criticism of the tight timeline for the program’s rollout. Program details were released in December 2022, with an original application deadline of Feb. 1, 2023, which was extended to March 1.
“Trying to engage in the end of December to early spring is too tight a time frame; people are planning for their next crop now,” he said. “Early October is an optimal time.”
Cullom said participants also wanted firm, fixed pricing for their water. This year, the UCRC set the opening price at $150 an acre-foot and applicants had to negotiate and convince officials that their water was worth a higher price, a process that some irrigators told Aspen Journalism was insulting.
Participants also wanted more clarity on how the amount of water conserved was estimated; clear and consistent messaging; and greater transparency about the goals of the program.
Three of the four upper basin state commissioners said they were leaning toward doing system conservation again in 2024. Colorado Commissioner Becky Mitchell was noncommittal.
“I want to be incredibly thoughtful on the approach that we take,” she said. “I’m going to need a bit of time to digest it, but also engage with Colorado’s water users before making a decision.”
The UCRC will have another meeting before early October to make a decision on whether to go forward with the program in 2024.
Nearly $1 million paid for 2,517 acre-feet in Colorado
According to UCRC Deputy Director Sara Larsen, if all the projects are completed this season, nearly $16.1 million will have been spent on system conservation this year across the four states. Of that, $991,929 will be doled out to 22 project participants in Colorado.
About 2,388 acres of agricultural land will go unirrigated in Colorado this season and the total amount of water conserved across those 22 projects is about 2,517 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of 1 foot and can supply one or two families a year).
That means project participants in Colorado are being paid an average of about $394 for every acre-foot of water they conserve. Officials say the average price per acre-foot across the upper basin is $422. But precisely how much individual water users get for their water is unknown because payment amounts were redacted in the publicly available contracts between irrigators and the UCRC. Also blacked out are the exact location of projects, names of participating ditches, and information about water rights such as priority dates and decreed amounts of water.
Paying water users to irrigate less has long been controversial on the Western Slope, with fears that these temporary and voluntary programs could lead to a permanent “buy and dry” situation that would negatively impact rural farming and ranching communities.
UCRC officials have repeatedly said that large amounts of water cannot be saved through system conservation in the upper basin and that cuts are needed from the lower basin — California, Nevada and Arizona — to bring the system back into balance.
The amount of water saved by upper basin system conservation is a drop in the bucket when it comes to refilling the nation’s two largest reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell. Most projects in Colorado are small — the smallest saving just under 3 acre-feet of water — and officials have said they may set a minimum requirement next time around.
Still, officials recognize that some upper basin water users want tools to help them be flexible and resilient in their operations, and low-risk ways to prepare for future water shortages.
“I continue to hear hesitance on the part of some of our water users to conserve water that will simply run down to the lower basin and support their overuse,” Mitchell said. “I also heard many water users welcome the opportunity to get paid to not use their water on a temporary basis and then to be able to consider options that may help them prepare better to adapt to a dry and variable hydrology.”
Although Cerise agrees with the criticism that the rollout of system conservation was quick — she only learned about the program 10 days before the application deadline — she said it has been an easy and uncomplicated experience overall and gives it a five-star rating. UCRC contractors have been out to check on the property once a month, she said.
“They physically walk the property, so I know they are managing these funds correctly and making sure we are not putting one drop of water where we aren’t supposed to,” she said. “We have been so happy and grateful.”
Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment, social justice and more. This story ran in the Sept. 2 edition of The Aspen Times, the Sept. 3 edition of the Vail Daily, the Sept. 5 edition of the Grand Junction Sentinel, the Sept. 6 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and Sept. 9 on KUNC.