Colorado farmers and ranchers will have another chance to be paid to cut back on their water use through a conservation program that was extended into 2024.
The System Conservation Pilot Program is part of a federally funded, multistate effort to stabilize the overtaxed Colorado River Basin, but the program saw mixed success this year. The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — spent nearly $16.1 million in tax dollars on this year’s conservation program, almost double the $8.5 million spent, in total, during the four-year pilot that preceded it. They saved about 37,810 acre-feet of water, a tiny drop in the Colorado River’s annual flow of about 12 million acre-feet.
The conservation program gave water users the chance to try things that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, said Colorado Commissioner Becky Mitchell during the Upper Colorado River Commission meeting Thursday.
“And I’ve heard plenty about how the process could be improved, including the level of transparency,” she said. “All of this input has really helped inform the decision that I’m making today, and it informs us on how any process will be developed if the program moves forward.”
She and the commissioners from the other Upper Basin states voted unanimously to continue the program during the meeting.
The conservation program originally launched in 2015 to, in part, see if voluntary, temporary and compensated water cuts in the four Upper Basin states could help stabilize water levels in Lake Powell and be a useful response to drought. Powell is one of the largest reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin, where drought, climate change and overuse are stressing the water supply for 40 million people across the Western U.S.
Between 2015 and 2018, farmers and ranchers reduced their irrigation or didn’t irrigate at all on parts of their land. Some switched to more water-efficient crops. Over four years, the program spent about $8.5 million to conserve about 47,200 acre-feet of water, about $180 per acre-foot, across the Upper Basin states. (One acre-foot can support the annual water needs of two, or sometimes more, average households.)
In 2022, when Colorado River conditions worsened and the basin’s water storage was historically low, the federal government called on states to cut their water use by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet. The Upper Basin states outlined their response in a 5-Point Plan, and first on the list was relaunching the system conservation program.
In December 2022, the federal government reauthorized the program. Upper Basin states had up to $125 million from the federal Inflation Reduction Act to spend on projects between 2023 and 2026.
Of the $16.1 million spent during this year’s program, about $992,000 went to 22 project participants in Colorado to save 2,517 acre-feet of water. Overall, the price of water saved jumped to about $425 per acre-foot across the four Upper Basin states, a 136% increase compared to the program’s first iteration.
A narrowed focus for 2024
The small savings are just one of the challenging outcomes from this year’s program, but officials are bent on turning things around during the 2024 program.
The 2024 water conservation program will still encourage voluntary, temporary and compensated participation. It will focus on innovative water conservation methods and developing local drought resilience tools, but Colorado River commissioners also chose to narrow the program’s scope in 2024 to explore a much-debated water conservation strategy called demand management.
A demand management program would involve saving water and then tracking the water savings from the source, across state lines and all the way to Lake Powell. The concept aims to help stabilize water levels in Flaming Gorge, Navajo, the Aspinall Unit — which includes Blue Mesa — and Lake Powell reservoirs.
In 2024, the Upper Colorado River Commission water conservation plans to prioritize projects that help fill in data gaps in a demand management feasibility investigation. Officials are still figuring out exactly what data is needed, according to Colorado Water Conservation Board staff.
“I think if you asked the four Upper Division states, what are your open questions for demand management, you might get four different answers,” said Amy Ostdiek, section chief of the agency’s interstate, federal and water information section, during a Colorado Basin Roundtable meeting Monday. “The short answer is, I don’t know.”
The idea poses significant challenges related to water administration and public support.
For farmers and ranchers, it’s an immediate no-go, said Greg Vlaming, a soil scientist and agricultural producer in southwestern Colorado who helped many other producers navigate the program this year.
Many growers want water savings to stay in reservoirs close to home to help provide for irrigation in dry years, and stopping irrigation, or fallowing, parts of their land means higher startup costs and more hours to bring that land back into production the next season.
“It’s not demand management yet. That’s what we’re all kind of watching for,” Vlaming said. “If we have to go fallow and we have to shepherd water, then I don’t think we’ll get participation on any level.”
“It would be imprudent not to try”
Another tweak: The 2024 program will have an earlier application window beginning in October. This year, farmers and ranchers were left in limbo, waiting for application updates in early spring while needing to make planting and irrigation decisions. Administrators faced a time crunch to finish the complex approval process before the irrigation season started.
If all goes according to plan, project applications will be received by mid-December, reviewed by February and in action by mid-March 2024, according to the commission.
Officials also say the compensation structure will be more straightforward in the 2024 program. This year, the program offered $150 per acre-foot of water saved, based on the median compensation from the first pilot program, or participants could negotiate based on justifiable on-farm expenses.
On average, Colorado farmers and ranchers were paid $394 per acre-foot. But participants wanted more transparency from the get-go, so the 2024 program will have a firm, fixed price for compensation, according to the Upper Colorado River Commission.
Vlaming said these changes are key.
“I guess my initial hit was, good job. I think they found the focus points that needed to get tightened up a little bit,” he said, referencing the compensation structure in particular. “I’m glad that they’re going to keep it like it was last year because it did give us a lot of latitude to get creative and help farmers farm.”
In the 2024 program, people will also have more chances to comment on the process, and outreach will improve: The Upper Colorado River Commission plans to hold public information meetings and pre-application sessions with potential applicants to ease the process.
“Having now talked through some of the improvements that are being recommended and, with this unique opportunity of … funding, I think it would be imprudent not to try and learn what we can from a new round of this,” New Mexico Commissioner Estevan Lopez said.