Water managers in Western Colorado are helping to shape a water conservation program with policies they say are aimed at protecting water users.
Last week, board members of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District unanimously approved criteria that the organization will use to evaluate applications for the System Conservation Program.
To gain approval from the River District — whose mission is to protect, conserve, use and develop water in the 15 Western Slope counties that it covers — an applicant must be a farm operator, not just a landowner. And the entire payment must go to the farm operator — an increase from the 40% of the payment the River District initially proposed.
This is intended, in part, to prevent a situation where a landowner enters their acres in the fallowing program, leaving a tenant farmer with no land to farm and the resultant loss of their livelihood.
“This is a fairly simple situation where it would just be paid to the farm operator and we stay out of the contractual relationship between the owner and the farm operator,” said River District General Manager Andy Mueller.
The policy also says that no more than 30% of the irrigated land in any one sub-basin and no more than 30% or 240 acres, whichever is less, of land owned by a single entity or person shall be fallowed in any given year. For small farm operations with less than 100 irrigated acres, participants can fallow up to 50% of their land.
In December, the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) announced details of a restarted System Conservation Program (SCP) that aims to lessen the impacts of drought and to boost depleted reservoirs by paying Colorado River water users in the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) to cut back.
The program initially ran from 2015 to 2018, saving about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot.
Applications for the 2023 program will have to be approved by the UCRC, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and, for those within its boundaries, the River District.
The SCP will be funded with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and proposes to pay water users a starting price of $150 per acre-foot of saved water.
The rebooted program is one arm of the UCRC’s 5-Point Plan, released in July, which is aimed at protecting critical elevations at the nation’s two largest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Fueled by a two-decade drought and climate change, the reservoirs have fallen to historically low levels, threatening the ability to make hydroelectric power at the dams.
Grand Valley Water Users Association proposes alternative framework
The Grand Valley Water Users Association (GVWUA) is rejecting the concept of paying farmers based on an amount of unused water, even as the association’s board voted to participate in the rebooted program. Instead, the association is proposing to pay farmers for each acre they take out of production, thereby tying the payments to the land.
According to an information sheet for water users, “cooperators” would get $1,306 for each acre fallowed for the entire 2023 irrigation season. Fallowing from the beginning of the season through Sept. 30 would get $1,237 per acre; fallowing through Aug. 31 would get $1,073 per acre; and fallowing just through the summer season, from May 15 to Aug. 31, would get $686 per acre.
“We are really hesitant on anything that would make it appear we are removing that water right from the land or even using verbiage that hints at that,” GVWUA General Manager Tina Bergonzini said. “The way we put it in our application (to the UCRC) is we would be requesting a certain amount of money per acre that’s not farmed. We basically are telling them: We are not accepting your $150 per acre-foot; we are basing it on per acre.”
A maximum of 1,000 acres of the association’s roughly 24,000 would be enrolled in this year’s program and farmers would have to go through GVWUA; they cannot submit applications on their own. If the applications total more than 1,000 acres, the association will hold a drawing to choose participants.
Applicants must meet the definition of “actively engaged in farming” as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency and be farming a minimum of 30 irrigated acres within the GVWUA service area. There is a minimum of 15 acres and maximum of 240 acres that one applicant can enroll, and enrolled acreage cannot exceed 50% of the applicant’s acreage.
The GVWUA application must be approved by the UCRC, the CWCB and the River District before its proposed program is implemented.
The Grand Valley, where the 55-mile-long Government Highline Canal snakes through farmland, turning the desert green, has been ground zero in recent years for discussions about water conservation and the speculation concerns that come with it. New York City-based private equity firm Water Asset Management (WAM) has been acquiring land in the Grand Valley and fueling fear that speculative outside investors could be seeking to profit from Colorado’s water.
Bergonzini said that WAM’s farmers, who she said irrigate around 1,200 acres of GVWUA system lands, are invited to apply for the program through the association just like any other water user.
She said the issue of whether GVWUA should participate in SCP was contentious and the nine-voting-member board was split 5-4 in favor.
Fruita farmer and GVWUA board member Tom Wood voted against participation because he said the tight timeline doesn’t give water users enough time to plan for this irrigation season. Wood said he participated in the original pilot program but is undecided if he will do so this time.
“It’s not that I’m against the program,” he said. “I just didn’t think the timing was right for this year. If people are going to participate, they probably need a little more time to consider their cropping sequence.”
The deadline for applications, originally set for Feb. 1, has been extended to March 1.
Bringing balance to the river
The Grand Valley is well positioned for a water conservation program because water left in the river at this location near the state line is almost certain to reach Lake Powell; there are few major diversions between there and the nation’s second-largest reservoir.
But water managers caution that using SCP to boost water levels in Lake Powell is not a guarantee. Unlike the much-studied and conceptually similar “demand management” program, SCP does not have a dedicated pool in Lake Powell for the upper basin states to store water and there is no mechanism to “shepherd” conserved water past downstream users and into depleted reservoirs.
Any water saved by Western Slope water users will probably end up being used by the lower basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) instead of bolstering reservoirs, Mueller said. He said just because the River District has created a policy for approving SCP applications doesn’t mean it endorses the program.
“I don’t think that it’s a well-designed program to actually achieve the stated goal, which is to assist in bringing balance to the river,” Mueller said. “Any water produced under system conservation — to the extent it makes it past your neighbor’s headgates and makes it into Lake Powell — is going to get sucked right through the Glen Canyon Dam and into Mead and right through Hoover and on to some lawn or swimming pool in Southern California or Arizona. And I don’t think that’s a great idea.”
Upper basin water managers have called on the lower basin states to bear the brunt of the cuts needed to sustain the system, given that the lower basin regularly uses its full annual appropriation of Colorado River water, while the upper basin uses far less overall.
Bergonzini said it’s not up to GVWUA to fix a problem they didn’t create. But she said the association stands in solidarity with the state of Colorado and the UCRC on the 5-Point Plan.
“We are trying to show the state we have their back in negotiations with the lower basin to try to come to a conclusion that supports some stability in the Colorado River,” she said. “That’s the biggest reason why we are doing this.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.