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Water officials reboot paid, volunteer conservation program

A pump pulls water from the Green River at a Sweetwater County-managed recreation area Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

GILLETTE, Wyo. — The Upper Colorado River Commission plans to revive a program that pays irrigators and other valid rights holders to voluntarily leave water in streams that feed the beleaguered Colorado River.

The System Conservation Pilot Program is one strategy among a handful that Upper Colorado River Basin states — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — have offered to help satisfy their role in meeting a challenge by federal officials to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water system-wide in 2023.

“The goal is to have water conservation projects underway in April 2023 to reduce consumptive uses in the Upper Basin Colorado River system,” the UCRC stated in a Dec. 14 press release. More “durable” and “longer-term” solutions are still needed, however, the UCRC said. “The SCPP is a significant step to begin to partially mitigate the water supply crisis in the Upper Colorado River Basin brought on by a drier climate and depleted storage.” 

The SCPP was initially implemented from 2015 through 2018 using funds from Lower Colorado River Basin stakeholders, including large municipalities such as Las Vegas. This time around, the UCRC proposes to instead use $125 million from the Inflation Reduction Act — an appropriation that backers hope Congress will approve in a spending bill.

Water users have only until Feb. 1 to submit proposals in response to a call for applications that was issued Dec. 14. 

Lake Powell, pictured in 2022. (Bureau of Reclamation/FlickrCC)

The UCRC scrambled in recent months to relaunch the SCPP water conservation program under pressure to lay the groundwork for both short- and long-term water savings amidst a growing crisis along the Colorado River. The river system serves some 40 million people in seven western states and Mexico. 

The 22-year “megadrought” that has parched much of the American southwest — combined with growing demands on the river — has drained Lake Powell and Lake Mead to their lowest levels in history and shows no signs of abating, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

The ongoing crisis, if drought conditions continue, could result in mandated water curtailments in Wyoming by 2028, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office. Municipalities, including Cheyenne, Green River and Rock Springs, are among the most vulnerable because — generally — they hold junior water rights that, under the Colorado River Compact and Wyoming water law, would be among the first to be restricted under a curtailment. About one-fifth of Wyoming’s population relies on domestic water supplies subject to a curtailment under the Colorado River Compact. 

Compensated conservation

Despite the quick turnaround to attract volunteer projects under the revived SCPP, water officials and conservation advocates in Wyoming believe there’s growing interest. Conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited played an integral role in the first iteration of the SCPP, seeing an opportunity to promote water conservation measures that also benefit fisheries and the general biological health of waterways by keeping more water in streams and rivers late in the summer.

Wyoming is one of four upper-basin states governed by the Colorado River Compact and associated laws that require 7.5 million acre-feet of water to flow past Lee Ferry, Arizona, annually. (Colorado Foundation for Water Education)

Wyoming Trout Unlimited Water & Habitat Program Director Cory Toye helped introduce many agricultural water users to the SCPP in the first go-round, and that work has resumed in recent months, he said.

“It’s certainly on people’s minds,” Toye told WyoFile. “For the most part, it still makes economic sense for a lot of [irrigated ag] operations.”

Participation among Wyoming water users increased incrementally over the first four years of the program. All told, the SCPP in Wyoming saved a total 23,886 acre-feet at 26 project sites. It cost $4,079,233 — about $171 per-acre foot, according to a report by the upper basin commission.

For now, the commission envisions a “fixed term” compensation of $150 per acre-foot under the SCPP in 2023, although it may consider higher rates based on circumstances, according to the agency’s request for proposals.

Dipping toes

Eric Barnes, an irrigator on Fontenelle Creek — a tributary of the Green River in western Wyoming — was among the first SCPP participants in the state, and he’s eager to enroll in the program in 2023, he said. Barnes irrigated as usual in the spring to grow an early season crop, he said, then curtailed irrigation later in the summer — a water conservation practice known as “split season deficit irrigation.” All 26 projects in Wyoming during the first four years of the program fell under this category.

“It was beneficial for me,” Barnes said. “I was able to take advantage of the water early in the season and then shut [irrigation headgates] off and get paid for [conserving water] in the same year.”

The practice — at least on Fontenelle Creek, Barnes said — left more water in the creek to support the trout fishery; a benefit to the local recreation economy and a priority for groups like Trout Unlimited.

“It was a good way to help people understand what life may look like with less water and what diversifying [irrigation] operations might look like,” Toye said. “And the scale of the projects went from scattershot those first couple of years to tying entire tributaries together.”

For now, the program makes sense for a lot of Wyoming ag irrigators subject to the Colorado River Compact, according to Toye, particularly in the upper reaches of the Green River and its tributaries. Although Wyoming and its fellow upper Colorado River basin states are eager to revive the program, it will soon evolve and be replaced by a larger conservation program with more sophisticated water-accounting protocols that are recognized by stakeholders throughout the system.

Those changes may entice ag irrigators like Barnes to take on water conservation strategies beyond simply foregoing a second round of summer irrigation, Toye said. However, he added, the program isn’t intended to shrink or replace ag production.

“The goal is to make sure people can do as much as they have historically with less water, or at least be prepared to do that,” Toye said. “So the intent is to explore different irrigation patterns and perhaps identify places where efficiencies can occur.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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