SANTA FE — A four-year pilot program that paid ranchers and farmers in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico about $200 per acre-foot of water saved by fallowing fields in order boost water levels in Lake Powell will be put on hold after 2018.
On Wednesday, the five members of the Upper Colorado River Commission unanimously passed a resolution to that effect at a board meeting.
“Although the pilot (program) has helped explore the feasibility of some aspect of demand management programs, it does not provide a means for the upper division states to account, store and release conserved water in a way which will help assure full compliance with the Colorado River Compact in times of drought,” the resolution said.
“Demand management” generally means finding ways to save, or conserve, water by paying willing irrigators to divert less water from streams and rivers by fallowing some of their fields for all, or part, of an irrigation system.
(Please see relate story: “Money for water: A pilot project wins over skeptical farmers and ranchers.)
This year, $3.9 million is expected to be paid out to ranchers and farmers in the upper basin, which will make it the biggest year of the program, but that will be it for the System Conservation Pilot Program in the upper basin.
The ending of the program in the upper basin does not mean the commission is giving up on getting more water into the upper Colorado River system in order to raise water levels in Lake Powell, as that interest continues to grow as the drought that began in 2000 lingers.
“I view it more of a change in direction rather than a value judgment of system conservation,” said Pat Tyrrell, who represents Wyoming on the commission and also is the Wyoming state water engineer.
In introducing the proposed resolution, Tyrrell said “there are some things (the pilot program) simply cannot do.”
The pilot program “does not allow the upper division states to sufficiently investigate storage or the additional administrative, technical, operational, economic and legal considerations necessary to explore the feasibility of demand management as part of its ongoing emergency drought contingency planning efforts,” the resolution adopted by the commission states.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District based in Glenwood Springs, supported the commission’s decision.
“I think it is an appropriate temporary halt in the Upper Colorado River Commission’s support for the SCPP,” he said after the meeting in Santa Fe. “Mainly because in order for a conserved consumptive use program like this to work, the upper basin needs a pool of water designated in Lake Powell that we can use as a water bank. We don’t currently have that, and until that’s there, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of our of society’s resources on the program.”
Lake Powell is 53 percent full today, and if the water level in the huge reservoir falls much further, it will mean that first, hydropower can no longer be produced by the turbines in Glen Canyon Dam, which forms the reservoir, and second, that not enough water can physically be released to meet the upper basin state’s obligations under the Colorado River Compact to send water to the lower basin states, which include California, Arizona and Nevada.
So while there is room in Lake Powell to hold more water sent down from the upper basin states, there is no way to securely store the water from a legal perspective. Today, any water that reaches Powell is fair game to be sent on to Lake Mead and the lower basin states, which defeats the purpose of sending water there to bolster its operational water level.
But there is a legal way to protect such a pool of water in Lake Mead. It’s called an “intentionally created surplus” (ICS). Water managers in the upper basin states would like to see something similar created in Lake Powell through federal legislation, although they prefer the term “demand management storage” to distinguish it from “intentionally created surplus,” which is a term shaped by, and tied to, the 2007 interim guidelines that currently dictate how Lake Powell and Lake Mead are managed together.
The pilot program began paying ranchers and farmers in 2015 to fallow fields and let water run down the river system toward Lake Powell. Originally set-up as a two-year program, it was extended for one year in 2017, and then another in 2018.
The program has paid for fallowing in both the upper Colorado River basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico and in the lower basin states.
The overall system conservation program initially was funded by an $11 million pool provided by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Denver Water, in partnership with Reclamation.
The Walton Family Foundation also contributed financially to the upper basin program through a contribution to Denver Water (the Walton Family Foundation also supports Aspen Journalism), and Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy invested a lot of staff time to help make the program work.
The funding for the program, which includes both a lower basin and an upper basin component, grew over the years, with the upper basin eventually having access to a $9.5 million pool of funds, according to Amy Haas, the incoming executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
(Haas is replacing Don Ostler, who is stepping down into a consulting role after 14 years at the commission. Haas, who is from New Mexico, is the current general counsel of the commission and officially starts as executive director on July 1).
Haas said she expects the system conservation program in the lower basin will continue if pending legislation in Congress is approved to re-authorize the program, and she clarified that the commission’s resolution passed this week only applies to the upper basin program.
In the first three years in the upper basin, 45 fallowing efforts were funded, including 15 in Colorado, at an average cost of $205 an acre-foot of conserved consumptive use — water that would have otherwise been consumed by various crops.
And not all of the funds in the system went to irrigators, as two municipal projects were also involved in the first three years of program, including one with the Pueblo Board of Water Works.
In those three years, about 22,116 acre-feet of water was left in the upper Colorado River system at a total cost of $4.6 million.
Individual contracts in the first three years of the program ranged from $6,300 to $635,000, depending on the number of acres fallowed and for how long.
The 22,000 acre-feet of water sent down to Lake Powell in the first three years of the pilot program represents a tiny drop in a big bucket, as the reservoir holds 24.3 million acre-feet of water when full.
It’s also not clear how much of the non-diverted water reached Lake Powell. Program administrators knew there was no guarantee the water would make it past other diverters without the legal ability to “shepherd” the water downstream.
On the other hand, fallowing projects were chosen in part because of their locations. Water from the Colorado River not consumed in the Grand Valley, for example, has a decent chance of making it through Westwater and Cataract canyons to reach Lake Powell.
However, officials said the experimental effort was not ever meant to physically change the level of Lake Powell, but to see what lessons could be learned from setting up such a program.
According to a candid report on the program released by the commission in February, the lessons learned in the upper basin included that the program was valued by some ranchers and farmers, but distrusted by others, that the program was hard to administer due to the many individual contracts required, and that in order for the program to really make a difference, it would need to be dramatically scaled up, and the resulting saved water would need to be securely shepherded to, and held in, Lake Powell or some other reservoir, and not just sent into the river system.
On June 22, Scott Yates, the director of Trout Unlimited’s Western Water and Habitat Program, issued a statement praising the program.
“We’re extremely proud to have worked with agricultural producers interested in the System Conservation Pilot Program,” Yates said. “The SCPP has proved the enormous potential for water demand management to address drought and climate impacts on the Colorado River Basin’s water supplies.
“We’ve learned that there is significant interest among ranchers and farmers for a program that compensates them for voluntary, temporary reductions in water use. That was a key question about SCPP — would agricultural producers respond to market-based incentives? The answer is an unqualified ‘yes.’
“TU believes that the SCPP in the Upper Basin has been successful in allowing producers to explore whether using their water right in this innovative way can benefit their operations. Many participants embraced the SCPP approach, especially if such a program can operate over the longer-term,” Yates said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times on the coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story in its print edition on Friday, June 22, 2018.