#ColoradoRiver water conservation project gets $11 million in funding

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From the High Country News (Nelson Harvey):

Under the agreement, finalized late last week between the Department of Interior and the utilities Denver Water, the Central Arizona Project, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, farmers, cities and industries will get paid to implement two-year, voluntary conservation projects that put water back into the Colorado River. The goal is to demonstrate that so-called “demand management” can prevent water levels in lakes Powell and Mead from dropping too low for their dams to generate electricity.

“We want to demonstrate how we can live within our means on the river,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, whose city relies on Colorado River water piped east over the Continental Divide for about half of its water supply.

In the agricultural sphere, one candidate for funding under the partnership would be rotational fallowing agreements, where farmers band together, dry up some of their land and leave the associated water in the river in dry years. Yet after years of Western cities “buying and drying” nearby farms to lubricate their growth, agricultural groups are eager to see other non-fallowing options explored as well…

“Fallowing is really a blunt force tool that would harm agriculture,” said Terry Frankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. “We want to try to explore other ways of reducing demand,” like switching to less water intensive crops, watering less and accepting reduced yields, or water banking—foregoing diversions when you don’t need them in exchange for the right to use more later.
In cities, projects eligible for funding could include things like water-smart landscaping, increased use of reclaimed water, or efficiency standards for appliances and new construction.

Whatever the demand-reducing mechanism, Lochhead said, “The goal is to develop a plan that we can put into place as we need to in emergency situations.” And for water managers who depend on the Colorado River, losing power-generating capacity in lakes Mead and Powell would certainly qualify as an emergency. If water levels drop that low, there likely won’t be enough head pressure in Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam to push through 7.5 million acre feet of water over 10 years. That’s how much the upper basin states—Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—are required to deliver to the lower basin under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. If they fall short, the lower basin states—Arizona, Nevada and California—have license to place a call on the river and force their friends in the upper basin to cut consumption…

“If that happens, it would mean chaos in the basin among water users because everyone would be scrambling to try to shore up our water supplies,” Lochhead said.

And losing power generating capacity could have other consequences: proceeds from the electricity generated at Glen Canyon Dam now fund recovery programs for four endangered species—the Kanab ambersnail, the razorback sucker, the humpback chub and the southwestern willow flycatcher—that are native to the Colorado River Basin. If enough water in Lake Powell evaporates, funding for those programs could too, allowing the federal government to intervene and curtail water use in the upper basin in the name of the Endangered Species Act.

Finally, if the turbines inside Glen Canyon Dam ground to a halt, Lochhead points out that it could prompt power prices in the upper basin to spike, since roughly 5.8 million people now depend on electricity from the dam for a portion of their power supply. Exactly how much rates would rise remains unclear.

State Reps. Don Coram and Jerry Sonnenberg are cool to the proposal. Here’s a guest column that’s running in the Sterling Journal-Advocate:

Denver Water on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation and the respective water districts from Arizona, California and Nevada recently developed a drought management pilot program for the Upper Colorado River System to send more water downstream. Other than Denver Water, the water districts involved in this program represent the states known as the Lower Basin states. The proposal addresses several concerns, which can be summed up as the Lower Basin states cannot satisfy their current water demand. Unfortunately, when the drafters of this pilot program looked up stream for more water, it seems Colorado’s agriculture industry became their target for relief.

In order to send more water to these Lower Basin states, the pilot program suggests farmers could fallow more land, employ deficit irrigation techniques and plant crops that use less water; but let us explain why these ideas will greatly damage our agriculture industry. First, fallowing, a term for intentionally leaving a portion of a field vacant, is strategically used by farmers to let soils recover from a harvest. Fallowing can improve yields in future years, but because a farmer is choosing not to plant in a portion of the field, no crops are produced. Secondly, changing to deficit irrigation methods can be very difficult and result in lower crop yields. And lastly, crops are soil, location, elevation and climate specific, and each require an enormous investment in equipment specific to that crop. Additionally, crop selection is based on market prices, demand and cost of harvest. Requiring farmers to plant different crops can be costly, and in some cases, not viable.

On top of the burdens proposed in this program is the current Colorado drought, which reduced agricultural production by 25 percent last year alone. Yet despite this drastic drop in production, Colorado’s agriculture industry still contributed over $2 billion to our state’s economy. Asking Colorado farmers to plant less, reduce their yield and even switch crops will have devastating impacts on our agriculture industry and ultimately our state’s economy.

Much like Colorado, the Lower Basin states are struggling to meet their water demand, but with growing populations in this region and declining rain and snow fall, this problem is likely here to stay. However, as Colorado and its neighboring states continue to look for solutions for water management, they need to consider who has been and will continue to be a leader of water conservation — our agriculture industry. This industry is first to experience the effects of drought and consequently is the first to take steps to better manage its water supply. Simply put, farmers and ranchers are already consummate water conservationists because their livelihoods depend on it.

The Lower Basin states can receive water above their agreed upon allotment. If these states are looking for more water, cities like Las Vegas need to discuss ways to better manage their current water budget, and leave Colorado farmers’ and ranchers’ water out of the discussion.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

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