A pilot program under which farmers and ranchers in the Upper Colorado River Basin volunteered to be compensated for temporarily fallowing lands with the idea of boosting water levels in Lake Powell drew significant interest from water users and has shown that such an approach may be a useful tool, a new report on the project shows.

The program, implemented by the Upper Colorado River Commission interstate water agency in places including the Grand Valley, didn't test whether conserved water reached the reservoir. Instead, it assessed the feasibility of systemwide conservation within the basin "as a future means of increasing storage at the reservoir," says the commission's new report.

Among its findings: "Conservation may be a tool to improve reservoir conditions provided legal, technical and policy issues can be resolved."

The upper-basin project was part of an $11 million System Conservation Pilot Program funded by four major Colorado River municipal water users, including Denver Water, in partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The project came in response to low water levels in Powell and Lake Mead due to drought and increasing demands. Water managers are exploring the idea of "banking" water to fend off a crisis.

The report says the program "contributed to a better understanding of whether and how voluntary reductions in consumptive use in the Upper Basin may help protect critical reservoir levels during drought."

Funding agencies originally committed at least $2.75 million for a two-year upper-basin program, which the Upper Colorado River Commission started in 2015. But due to the high interest in participating and availability of more funds, the project was extended through 2017, and again through this year. The Walton Family Foundation has chipped in money to the program.

The report concludes that through 2017, the upper-basin program provided $4.55 million to conserve 22,116 acre-feet of water, based on historical estimates of the amount of water that otherwise would have been used. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

One question the report raises is where funding might come from to ramp up such a program to a point where it would provide measurable benefits. As an example, the report asks, is it feasible to secure roughly $40 million to conserve about 200,000 acre-feet of water, based on current cost estimates?

Altogether, the pilot program received 93 applications and implemented 45 over the first three years. Colorado accounted for 35 of the applications and 15 of the implemented projects.

While two of the 45 projects involved limiting municipal use, the rest were all agricultural. In some cases fields were fallowed an entire season. In others, they were irrigated just part of a season, or irrigation was cut back and an alternative crop grown.

The report says the pilot program helped the Upper Colorado River Commission gain "an understanding of the requirements to administer, contract, and pay for conservation activities." It says the first three years of the program showed it's possible to contract for conservation measures and verify that conservation occurred, and also showed that "competitive pricing can support conservation efforts."

Paul Kehmeier of Eckert was a participant in the pilot program.

"I think that they've got quite a ways to go to make it a viable program, but I think they learned quite a bit for the money that they spent on this pilot," he said.

One thing he has been concerned about with the pilot effort, and that the report calls out, is the need to streamline what is a laborious contracting and funding process for leasing water from participating farmers. Kehmeier noted that a number of entities were involved in the pilot program.

"It was kind of like leasing by committee, I guess, and that's always more complicated," said Kehmeier, who said he would hope and expect a single entity would handle things if a long-term program is set up.

Kehmeier said his farm has been exploring through the pilot program and other means how it can continue to farm in cases where it's not getting as much water, be it because of a decision to lease water or a dry year like this year is shaping up to be. He's found that his alfalfa fields, and to a certain extent his grass fields, can withstand less-than-full irrigation without much long-term damage. The question now is how much a leasing entity might be willing to pay for his water and whether that makes it economically a good idea, he said.

Kehmeier said he's guardedly optimistic that water leasing and banking will develop into a viable commercial tool. But he said there still are legal questions about whether Colorado water law and interstate agreements can ensure that any water conserved in western Colorado actually would reach Lake Powell rather than being used by others before it gets there. And he's not convinced of the economic viability of such a fallowing program, although he suspects the interest is there among farmers.

"I think there will probably be adequate interest in doing it as long as we get reimbursed well enough to make it worth our time," he said.

In a news release, two conservation groups involved in the pilot program, Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy, said the report's findings are encouraging.

Said Scott Yates of Trout Unlimited, "As the basin faces a potentially dry year, with the prospect of further declining levels in Lake Powell, this report underscores the enormous potential of innovative, market-driven solutions to our water challenges."

Western Colorado's Colorado River District also has been involved in the pilot program. District spokesman Jim Pokrandt said that stems back to the district's interest in protecting irrigated agriculture.

"We do not want western Colorado ag to become the sacrifice zone because of poor water planning. This could happen if Lake Powell reservoir levels plunge to critical levels that threaten hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam and thus predict we could not meet our Colorado River Compact obligations to the Lower Basin," he said.

The district fears that agriculture could be forced to curtail use in such a scenario altogether through buying of water rights and drying up of land. It's exploring voluntary, compensated rotational fallowing as one way of boosting Powell levels to head off such threats.

Pokrandt said that while the success shown by the pilot program is encouraging, "much is still to be learned and worked out in the financial, administrative, political and water-law arenas. But if we do not try to tread this path ourselves, outside forces will do it for us."

He said the river district board is looking at the issues surrounding rotational fallowing closely.

“There is concern that rotational fallowing might actually grease the skids of decline of irrigated ag — to foster the very thing we are trying to forestall,” he said.

He said from western Colorado’s perspective, the concepts of rotational fallowing and water banking are solely for the purpose of protecting Lake Powell.

“They are not to produce water supply for new taps,” he said.

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