This week, Aspen Journalism reports on the Sept. 21 decision by Colorado River managers to continue a water conservation program originally designed to protect critical elevations in the nation’s two largest reservoirs.
Paying irrigators to conserve water in the upper basin has long been controversial. The specter of “buy and dry” hangs over every conversation, with some fearing that these programs — which are temporary and voluntary — are a slippery slope to the permanent loss of agricultural communities. But with the vast majority of water use in the Colorado River Basin in agriculture, it’s also the low hanging fruit for finding places to conserve.
The Upper Colorado River Commission has been dipping its toe into a pay-to-fallow program by restarting system conservation in 2023 and now deciding to continue it into 2024. Many water managers remain skeptical that system conservation works on a large scale, while still acknowledging these programs can give participating irrigators a much-needed injection of cash that could allow them to remain in agricultural production long term. Aspen Journalism has been covering every twist and turn of SCP, with nine stories on this topic over the last year as water managers navigate how to use these new tools — sometimes a bit clumsily — to save in times of shortages, which are only predicted to get worse, driven by overuse, drought and climate change.
Will SCP eventually lead to a more robust demand management program for the upper basin? So far, it’s still unclear. But what is guaranteed is that Aspen Journalism will continue to provide coverage of this pivotal and contentious issue, which has implications for the entire Colorado River Basin.
From Laurine Lassalle and the data desk, this week’s dashboard highlights the decrease in commercial occupancy from last year and its peak in 2021, the decreasing Lake Powell water levels and why they are critical, local streamflow levels, and the 20 degree drop in the high air temperature for Aspen from last week to this.
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– Heather Sackett
Managing editor and water desk reporter
Water users in upper basin can again get paid to conserve
By Heather Sackett | September 22, 2023
The Upper Colorado River Commission decided unanimously to continue the federally funded System Conservation Program in 2024 — but with a narrower scope that explores demand management concepts and supports innovation and local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis.
Water conservation program series
Changes to pricing, timing contemplated for potential 2024 reboot
August 30, 2023
Western Slope projects are small and involve agriculture
May 12, 2023
River District says it’s impossible to provide meaningful review
March 31, 2023
River District criteria will not be used to evaluate projects
March 17, 2023
Grand Valley Water Users propose payment for land, not water
February 22, 2023
Contracts approved only if no new projects take water to Front Range
January 20, 2023
Colorado River District will play role in vetting projects
December 18, 2022
Rebooted System Conservation Pilot Program RFPs open Dec. 14
December 10, 2022
Streamflows are up since last week.
By Laurine Lassalle | September 18, 2023
• August occupancy reached 55.9% for the Aspen and Snowmass combined this year, down from 59.8% last year. • The Fork ran at 63.1% of average at Stillwater on Sept. 17, up from 54.3% of average last week.
• High air temperatures at ASE dropped from 80°F on Sept. 9 to 61°F on Sept. 14, or about eight degrees below average.
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