Pilot Projects to Boost Colorado River Levels Underway
The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in Colorado stopped irrigating its grass fields for hay production July 1 as part of a pilot project to help the Colorado River, which has faced a prolonged drought. Known as split-season irrigation, the effort maintains the viability of future hay production while saving water. The project is the first of 10 to be funded under the Colorado River System Conservation Program, which launched in 2014.
The landmark Colorado River System Conservation Program was conceived by municipal water providers in Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado, and the Bureau of Reclamation to address the increasing probability of water shortage in the Colorado River.
Under that agreement, Central Arizona Project, Denver Water, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Southern Nevada Water Authority and Reclamation committed $11 million to test and gather data on short-term water-saving pilot projects that could benefit water levels in lakes Powell and Mead through temporary, voluntary and fully compensated mechanisms. At least $2.75 million of the funding will be used for pilot projects in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, Denver Water, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Water Conservation Board then came together to help design and promote the program to water utilities, industrial, agricultural and environmental parties to solicit innovative conservation programs for funding. The Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) has stepped forward to manage the program and will use the test results in its design of a multipronged drought contingency plan for the Upper Basin.
All 10 of the Upper Basin projects selected—five in Colorado and five in Wyoming—are expected to be operating in 2015. A total of $1 million will be used for evaluating reductions in irrigation and transbasin diversions, and short-term fallowing. Contracts are being negotiated for the nine other pilot projects.
“A lot of work and communication went into this effort,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water. “This pilot demonstrates that municipal water utilities, agricultural producers and conservation organizations have a common interest in developing a response to extended drought. Our partners sat down with us to frame a program that can work for everyone. And having the states, through the UCRC, administer the program gives it credibility.”
“We are eager to find long-term solutions that work for people and rivers, and we felt that it was important to test some of these ideas on our own property with our water rights,” said Geoff Blakeslee, Yampa River project director for The Nature Conservancy. “If we want to get ahead of a water crisis in the Colorado River Basin, we need to figure out what will work for all water users and our rivers sooner rather than later.”
“What we learn through these pilot programs can help sustain agriculture for the long term,” said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “We’re glad to see a range of techniques being tested and explored through these Upper Basin programs.”