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Bob Neely, a farmer in Montezuma County, looks at bales of alfalfa Aug. 15. Neely swapped alfalfa for a crop that uses less water as part of this year's Colorado River water conservation program. (Shannon Mullane, The Colorado Sun)

MONTEZUMA COUNTY — Two inches. That’s all the water that farmer Bob Neely had available to sprinkle on his crops through his irrigation system in 2021. The particularly bad water year reminded him of 2002 — another tough year in two decades of prolonged drought.

“We didn’t make enough to even pay 20% of our water bill, let alone anything else — land payment, equipment payments,” Neely said, sitting on his back porch in mid-August. “So then you’re scrambling. What you’re doing is if you have equity in your land you go and borrow against that to try and get through. You burn equity and create more debt. That’s what droughts do.”

Neely was one of a handful of participants in this year’s leading effort to conserve agricultural water in the stressed Colorado River Basin. The program, called the System Conservation Pilot Program, pays farmers to temporarily cut their water use on a voluntary basis. Officials launched it this year after the federal government said basin states needed to cut back on their water use in light of historically low water storage levels. 

In total, this year’s program resulted in 37,810 acre-feet of conserved water across Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — less than 1% of the average water used by the four states between 2019 and 2021. Only 2,700 acre-feet of that saved water was conserved by 22 farms and ranches in Colorado.

The conservation effort had a speedy, disjointed launch and caused some consternation among Colorado water users and managers. For farmers like Neely, it offered a chance to make on-farm improvements or experiment with less water-intensive crops with less financial risk. Now officials and water users are weighing in on whether this type of conservation effort is worth continuing, and despite the small savings, most say “yes.”

“That’s a lot, a lot of work for that amount of water. But it also shows that we do what we can to be part of the solution,” said Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell during an interstate meeting Tuesday.

Five key takeaways from 2023

During the meeting, Mitchell and other state commissioners heard five take-aways from a “lessons learned” analysis compiled by the Upper Colorado River Commission, an agency that provides a forum for Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — to work on interstate water issues related to the river basin. 

While state commissioners generally supported moving forward with the program, they did not officially decide to relaunch it in 2024. They said they needed more time to consider how exactly to modify it based on this year’s results. 

For the analysis, the river commission team interviewed commissioners, state officials, the Bureau of Reclamation, project participants, tribal governments, water conservation districts and conservation organizations.

First, the timing to set up the program this year was too tight: The federal authorization came down in late December 2022, after people were already planning for their crops and just three months before applications were due in March. The ideal time to launch a 2024 conservation program would be in early October, the river commission report said.

“I think I framed it as not much bang for the buck,” said Commissioner Estevan Lopez, who represents New Mexico. “I think the effort was extraordinary, but we started late. We obviously didn’t have the opportunity to think things through as we should have, probably.”

The rapid launch compounded messaging issues that caused confusion and spurred hesitancy among potential participants, according to the analysis. 

“Essentially there was a vacuum in messaging and it was filled by folks who either didn’t understand the program or misunderstood what was trying to be achieved,” said Chuck Cullom, the river commission’s executive director.

Other takeaways: People wanted a clearer idea of the financial aspects from the get-go. 

“That’s really the bottom line. How much money is it going to be for how much water?” said Commissioner Gene Shawcroft, who represents Utah. “There was a tremendous amount of money, a tremendous amount of energy and effort put forth. I don’t want to minimize it, but 38,000 acre-feet isn’t going to save the system.”

The System Conservation Pilot Program, or SCPP, received $125 million in federal funding which is used to compensate participating agricultural producers for the amount of water conserved. It’s based on a pilot program that ran from 2015 to 2018, using about $8 million to help farmers reduce consumption by roughly 50,000 acre-feet of water. 

“We’ve got federal money available to do this now. That federal money is time-limited, so taking advantage of it now makes a lot of sense just for that reason,” said chair Anne Castle, who represents the federal government on the commission.


Participants and officials also wanted more clarity on how their conserved water is calculated and more transparency about how applications were reviewed, Cullom said.

Earlier this summer, the two water conservation districts in the Western Slope said the process was opaque. Although the program is funded by federal tax dollars, officials redacted application details and dollar amounts. This was, in part, a response to pushback from agricultural producers who said they would not participate if they had to share certain information, like details related to private property or finances, according to state water officials.

Mitchell said she has heard these transparency concerns and will try to address them. She also relayed how water users were hesitant to try to conserve water if it is just going to run downstream to the massive reservoir Lake Powell and be used in the Lower Basin, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada. They wanted the water they saved to be used locally, she said. 

“For me, the question is really whether we’re able to conduct SCPP in a way that does not simply facilitate that overuse in the Lower Basin and also provides tools that our water users want,” she said.

Feedback from the farm

Agricultural producers had a variety of suggestions for the conservation program if it goes forward.

Some said they want longer-term options, like a multiyear approach, and wanted to protect their local economies. Fallowing land, for example, might mean fewer local jobs in an industry that employs almost 195,000 people statewide, according to the UCRC report. 

James Eklund, who farms and ranches in western Colorado, said he was frustrated that the water wasn’t accounted for all the way to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border, a process called shepherding. This amounted to a missed opportunity that sent water into the reservoir to support overuse in the Lower Basin, he said.

Eklund grazes 250 head of Black Angus cattle on his ranch in Plateau Valley, north of Grand Mesa, that dates to 1888. On more than 250 acres, Eklund grows hay grass, a blend of alfalfa, legumes, timothy grass, rye and some clover to help feed the herd. Because of the property’s senior water rights, Eklund can typically irrigate for the entire season.

This year, Eklund joined the conservation program, which he helped establish in 2014 as the former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state’s top water policy agency. 

“We took 70 acres, and thought: What’s the best thing we can do here? The best thing to do, to test this and see if it works for us, is fallow. So we fallowed that land,” he said.

Looking ahead, he wants to participate in future programs and to have a more accurate cost estimate for conserved water based on economic inflation, startup costs for replanting on fallowed land, and the cost of any extra feed he would need to buy on the spot market. This year, he negotiated a price of $621 per acre-foot of conserved water, an increase over the original offer from the state of $150 per acre-foot.

If the federal government didn’t cover all of the conservation costs for farmers and ranchers, Eklund proposed filling the gap with private funding and said he’s actively trying to involve companies that want to get their water footprint down to zero. That extra investment would only help producers get better at what they do, he said. 

“We run businesses. And if we don’t make money running those businesses, we will go out of business. That’s the biggest threat to agriculture — it’s more subdivided housing developments, like in the Grand Valley,” he said. “It’s not people from Wall Street or Denver or the Lower Basin who are coming over there and building subdivisions. Those subdivisions are eating up ag land at a rapid rate.”

Eklund has drawn criticism in recent years from some members of the water sector for advising Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm that has spent millions buying farmland with senior water rights in the Grand Valley.

Bob Neely compares beardless barley, front, and alfalfa, back, on Aug. 15. He grew both forage crops this season on his farm in Montezuma County. (Shannon Mullane, The Colorado Sun)

Greg Vlaming, a soil scientist who grows cider apples and hay in southwestern Colorado, often spends his days driving to talk with farmers and ranchers. He served as an intermediary this year to help producers learn about the program.

He had eight interested growers earlier in the year, but some people lost interest as soon as they saw the 23-page contract filled with daunting legal language. Others wanted conserved water to help pad the supply in the local reservoir instead of flowing down to Lake Powell. In the end only three farmers in the area joined the program.

“Train the trainer, don’t train the farmer. Farmers are farming,” Vlaming said. “Train the guys like me that are rolling it out, ’cause a lot of my conversations are one-on-one. It’s not like I’m going to hold a meeting, and everyone has time to come to another meeting.”

Vlaming joined Neely on his back porch outside Pleasant View in Montezuma County. The two agreed that an earlier start would help and that the compensation structure needed to be adjusted. 

This year, total conserved water was calculated based on a reference crop, sudan grass, which isn’t grown in the region. If the program paid based on actual water conserved rather than an estimate it would be better for producers and farmers, the men said.

“I would’ve gotten another $10,000, which would have just helped. The $110 net on the hay — all that does is bring that (net) up and makes it easier to do,” Neely said.

Bob Neely holds alfalfa grown on his farm in Montezuma County on Aug. 15. Although alfalfa is a high water-use crop, farmers often turn to it because it offers more nutritional value for livestock and higher profits than some alternative forage crops. (Shannon Mullane, The Colorado Sun)

But overall, the program turned out “really, I mean, really good,” he said. Neely used 120 acres of his 700-acre farm in the program. The former alfalfa field hadn’t been watered for two years because of drought conditions, so Neely wanted to try something different. He planted beardless barley into the unirrigated field, which required 9 inches of water per acre out of his typical 22.5 inches per acre of allocated water, he said. 

In the end, he produced 455 bales of hay, each weighing in at about 1,700 pounds. Neely said he can make up to $110 per ton after transportation costs—half what he can make with alfalfa, which requires about 32 inches of water per acre to grow.

“Just to put all the cards out there, alfalfa is still going to be our number one crop because it’s what we make the most money off of,” he said. “You know when fertilizer prices, fuel prices, water prices, everything is like it is, it’s really hard to go to something else. That’s where that program really helped doing another crop. It makes it a lot more financially viable.”

Shannon Mullane writes about Western water issues for The Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Catena Foundation. She focuses on the Colorado River Basin, tribal affairs related to water, and West Slope water issues.
Born in East Tennessee, Shannon has been in Colorado for a decade or so and is holding down the fort in Durango, the Sun's latest outpost. Before joining the Sun's team, she contributed award-winning reporting on government, environment, health and more as a staff writer for The Durango Herald and as an intern for the Colorado Independent. She also earned a master's in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Shannon is conversational in French, trying really hard in Spanish, and often spotted baking or enjoying live music.